Scientists ponder future of peninsula's waterways

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The Kenai Peninsula has plenty of good water. Or does it? Is the water good enough for healthy salmon runs? And will the peninsula have enough water by the end of this century?

Scientists asked those questions and others, equally portentous, at the annual meeting of the American Water Resource Association's Alaska Section, held April 8-12 in Soldotna.

About 40 professionals gathered at the Kenai River Center to review the latest studies on fresh water conditions around the state, and many presentations dealt specifically with the Kenai River watershed.

"As a whole, it's in good shape," said Mike Lilly, a past president of the Alaska AWRA and a geohydrologist who owns GW Scientific in Fairbanks.

But the health of area waterways is at risk because of heavy development pressures, he and others warned.

Heading off damage before it starts is far more effective and cheaper than trying to clean up damage after the fact. He pointed to the example of other states, where enormous amounts of money and effort have gone into cleaning up toxins and buying back property. Alaska is unusual because it still has clean areas and healthy fish runs.

But people on the Kenai Peninsula can look to places like Chester Creek in Anchorage for examples of what could happen to waterways here. Studies have detected warning signs, and even downtown Soldotna has problems with groundwater contamination sites.

"People tend not to get too excited until there is a problem. By then it is often too late," Lilly said.

The meeting's technical presentations covered topics as diverse as ice jams, global warming, groundwater movements, wetland evaluation and strategies for monitoring water quality.

Lilly said several issues along the Kenai River concern the group. Fishing effects such as the removal of salmon from the ecosystem and traces of boat oil in the water may be harbingers of serious problems.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is planning a study on river nutrients that could be very important, he said. The primary question is whether the river has enough salmon carcasses left in it after a run to fuel the food chain and maintain its productivity. But groundwater movements, a drying climate and septic system contamination all will influence the results, he said.

Monday, a panel of three out-of-town experts discussed potential problems for the Kenai River in years to come.

Steve Frenzel, from the U.S. Geological Survey, has been collecting data about the Kenai River for the National Water-Quality Assessment program. Although the study found trace amounts of arsenic and cadmium in river sediments, the water tended to be clean. He contrasted the bare, sterile gravel in spring just below Kenai Lake with the lush algae coating rocks in the lower river at summer's end.

"The difference is a million pink salmon," he said.

Questions about possible pollutant fallout from Nikiski industrial sites, detailed life histories of juvenile salmon and the amount of marine nutrients spawning salmon transport upriver remain unanswered, he said.

Stanley "Jeep" Rice, from the Auke Bay Fisheries Laboratory, specializes in effects of petroleum chemicals on wildlife. He warned that research after the Exxon Valdez oil spill showed that salmon eggs and fry are vulnerable to oil pollution in minute amounts. Subtle effects on survival can cause fish runs to gradually decline. Such pollutants have been detected near the Kenai dock and in No Name Creek, which flows from near the Kenai airport to the mouth of the river, he said.

Gordon Haas is an assistant professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He presented a list of possible dangers to area fish: rising water temperatures, increased ultraviolet radiation from the north polar ozone hole, decreased species diversity, polluting hormonal mimics hampering reproduction, and selenium, which has been detected in Cook Inlet sculpins at levels so high they cannot be used as food.

On the brighter side, the scientists said that so far the Kenai watershed seems free of polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) and fertilizer residues, which have done vast damage in other places.

The AWRA brings together engineers, biologists and geologists as well as hydrologists, who specialize in water topics. It gathers information from diverse areas and situations. The interdisciplinary nature of the group provides insights and the variety of viewpoints helps members focus on substantive information, Lilly said.

One concern AWRA members have is that regulations and management decisions in Alaska are based on inadequate knowledge of water science. The group wants to help provide expertise.

"We are trying to get the scientific base for decisions," said Bill Rice, the section's current president and a water resource engineer in Anchorage with the consulting firm MWH Americas.

Sampling efforts, such as those under way on the Kenai River, are vital because they reveal problems or potential problems. But they are incomplete because they do not explain causes. People need to understand why changes occur in order to respond effectively.

Regulatory bodies often lack the professional expertise to do that. In the absence of such knowledge, management decisions and regulations may be inadequate, off the mark or even overkill, Lilly and Rice said.

As an example, they cited rules that mandate surface distances between wells and septic leach fields. If the leach field is in a shallow area and the well is tapping into groundwater in a separated stratum 100 feet below it, the two would never mingle even if they were next to each other on the surface. People tend to think in two-dimensional ways about a three-dimensional reality.

They also pointed to the community of North Pole, where development practices have resulted in houses with deteriorating water quality and flooded basements.

"It is important to know where others have messed up so you can learn from their mistakes," Lilly said.

This meeting marks the first time the association has coordinated a statewide meeting with local watershed groups, he said. The Kenai Watershed Forum, the Kenai River Center, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Special Management Area Citizens Advisory Board co-sponsored the gathering. A variety of corporate sponsors also contributed.

The AWRA is a professional organization founded in 1964 to advance multidisciplinary water resource management and research. Its Alaska membership is about evenly divided among government agency personnel, university researchers and private environmental consultants, Lilly said.

Over the past several years, the organization has become more outspoken about public policy and educating the public. At the end of May, members plan to return to Soldotna to meet with peninsula officials from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation about issues relating to contaminated sites cleanup efforts, he said.

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