Before this summer, juvenile salmon wanting to find a good place to hang out on Silver Salmon Creek were forced to stay downstream of a small culvert that blocked their passage beyond Oilwell Road, leaving miles of prime silver and king rearing grounds essentially unused.
Thanks to the work of a number of volunteers and environmental agencies, however, that problem was solved with the installation of a larger, more fish-friendly culvert beneath the road.
Earlier this month, the restoration work was honored with a Coastal America award, one of the most prestigious environmental awards that can be bestowed on such a project.
The award was presented Feb. 7 at a luncheon held by the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage.
Coastal America is a partnership between the president of the United States, along with 12 federal agencies, as well as state, local and private organizations. As part of the award, President George W. Bush lauded the work at the creek as being a prime example of how the environment can be cared for when groups come together for a common goal.
"Your efforts help protect our environment and maintain the beauty of our country for future generations," Bush wrote.
The Silver Salmon Creek project was originated by the Kenai Watershed Forum, a local nonprofit group dedicated to protecting water resources on the Kenai Peninsula.
The watershed forum got involved with the stream following a 2001 Alaska Department of Fish and Game study that determined the original 4-foot culvert was providing inadequate fish passage up the creek, which empties into Deep Creek three miles downstream. After the finding, the forum-led group began the process of locating funding to replace the culvert.
Things got more complicated after a flood washed the road out entirely and deposited a large amount of gravel downstream of the project area.
However, after lining up help from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ninilchik Native Association, N.C. Machinery Co. and others, a new 12-foot culvert was installed this summer.
In addition, work was done upstream to enhance the stream's flow.
Ultimately, several miles of habitat were opened up to juvenile salmon living in the creek. Kenai Watershed Forum Executive Director Robert Ruffner said he's extremely pleased with how the project worked out.
"It looks beautiful now," Ruffner said.
Only time will tell how much of an impact the work has had on fish passage, but Ruffner said he's confident the work was a major step toward increasing the creek's viability as a salmon rearing area.
"We went back last fall and observed juvenile fish throughout the entire project area," he said.
Ruffner said the forum has plans to return to the project area in the future to ensure fish continue to be able to move freely through the new culvert.
Because a number of participants came together to make sure the project happened, the Coastal America Partnership determined the project was worth national recognition and named the creek project as one of only 10 projects nationwide to receive the honor.
Ruffner said the project was gratifying because so many groups were able to get on the same page and do what was right for the resource.
"It's complicated to pull a dozen or 15 partners together to pull something off," he said.
The Silver Salmon Creek project was the first restoration work the forum has done.
With its success, however, Ruffner said the group would like to tackle similar projects especially those that help fish move freely through waterways in the future.
"We're going to be very strategic in our restoration work, with the focus on improving fish passage," he said.
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