Soldotna has been hard on the little creek that gave the town its name. Longtime residents have seen the salmon disappear from its upper reaches.
Thursday evening, the creek's neighbors got together to talk about the future of their water supplies, the creek and its dwindling salmon and trout.
Robert Ruffner of the Kenai Watershed Forum organized the meeting. It featured presentations about safeguarding wells, threats to salmon in the creek and Kenai Peninsula Borough ordinances about property use adjacent to streams.
"With all the concentration on the Kenai River, we seem to have forgotten about the smaller creeks," Ruffner said. "There is some new awareness that we do need to pay attention to these smaller streams.
"It's not too late. We can really do something that will help us out in the long run."
Soldotna Creek arises from lakes northeast of Soldotna, including such settled areas as Mackey Lakes. It runs southwest, passes under the Sterling Highway and traverses wetlands behind Fred Meyer before flowing into the Kenai River.
Ruffner's organization got interested in Soldotna Creek in 1998, when landowners near the lower creek found out a sand pile stored nearby was leaching salt and killing vegetation on their lot. After the sand pile was removed, people in the creek area told him about other concerns and discussions continued.
This spring, 25 people decided to sponsor the meeting and invited everyone living in the creek's drainage. About two dozen people attended Thursday, and another dozen called Ruffner in advance to say they could not attend but wanted reports on the meeting.
The residents' chief complaint was that salmon had disappeared from portions of the creek upstream from the highway.
Carolyn Cannava told the group that a generation ago her children used to fish for salmon all the way up to Mackey Lakes. The spawning runs would back up in the creek below the highway.
"There were a lot of them," she said.
After the state rebuilt the road and put in a steep culvert, the fish vanished. About 10 years ago, the state put in a new culvert designed to be more fish-friendly.
Now the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is unsure whether salmon or their fry make it past the highway.
Ruffner told the attendees that Fish and Game has little information about the tributaries and wants the residents to tell biologists where they spot fry and how fish populations have changed over time.
Pike provide another major threat in the creek's watershed.
Residents said a misguided angler introduced pike into Derks Lake. The voracious predators have spread, eradicating salmon, trout and other species from Mackey Lakes and other areas that used to be popular fishing spots.
In informal discussions after the main meeting they talked about the difficult tradeoffs in eradicating pike or coexisting with them.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough has gotten involved with waterway protection efforts over the past decade.
John Mohorcich, a borough resource planner at the Kenai River Center, briefed the neighbors about existing and pending regulations affecting development of property along waterways.
The borough hosts about half of all sports fishing done in Alaska, he said. To preserve the resource, the community must be careful to balance the needs of fish, finances and people.
"I call that my Kenai River triangle," Mohorcich said.
The borough offers landowners property tax credit for projects that protect or restore banks of the Kenai River and its tributaries. Although few people seem to be aware of the option, and only about 25 percent of eligible projects are submitted for refunds, the borough has granted about $57,000 in credits so far, he said.
Mohorcich encouraged people to call him if they have spent money on such projects.
"You could get 50 percent off your land value taxes for three years," he said. "Contact me -- I'm the guy."
The borough assembly is considering a new ordinance, which would restrict development within 50 feet of the creek. The guidelines were imposed on the Kenai River in 1996, and the proposed ordinance would expand those habitat protection measures to other peninsula rivers and Kenai River tributaries, Mohorcich said.
The ordinance is scheduled to come before the assembly for its final public hearing and vote Tuesday at 7 p.m., when the assembly will meet in Seward.
According to borough records, 75 parcels touch Soldotna Creek, of which 23 are developed.
Fish are not the only critters at risk from watershed changes. Human drinking water supplies can suffer from careless development.
Mike Swan, chair of the soil and water conservation district, spoke to the group about keeping wells safe for consumption.
After the presentations, the residents talked about local-option zoning as a potential tool, ramifications of the pike problems and about a group in Anchor Point that is working on Anchor River watershed issues.
The Soldotna Creek neighbors present decided to meet with Fish and Game biologists this summer for a field trip along the creek to examine the fish.
Afterward, Mohorcich praised the forum as a useful exercise in grass-roots involvement.
Ruffner said he also has been approached by residents near Beaver and Slikok creeks who have concerns about their waterways. The Soldotna Creek neighbors may be starting a trend.
"You have to go beyond the banks of the Kenai River to really deal with the watershed," Ruffner said.
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