A new study indicates the wetlands that support the Kenai River system are drying up -- but at a much slower rate than other developed areas of the state and the Lower 48.
The study, which was commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, analyzed total wetland acreage in the lower Kenai River area between 1950 and 1996. It was done in order to determine what effects development in the Kenai, Soldotna and Sterling areas has had on the wetlands that support the Kenai River Watershed.
Fish and Wildlife researchers Jonathan Hall and Sheila Kratzner looked at aerial photographs and maps from 1950, 1977 and 1996. Using advanced measuring equipment, they were able to map and compare the data to determine how much wetland acreage was lost.
The results are both an indication that the river is in good shape and a warning that wetland loss in the watershed is real, according to Phil North, the EPA's Kenai watershed coordinator.
"We have lost a significant portion (of wetlands) so far. It's not major yet, but we're moving in that direction," he said Thursday.
The study was confined to an area encompassing 149,459 acres between Skilak Lake and the mouth of the Kenai. Of that area, roughly 32.1 percent is classified as wetlands or deepwater habitats (lakes and streams). This compares to just 5.5 percent of land in the Lower 48.
The report concludes that between 1950 and 1996, a total of 707 acres, or 1.7 percent, of wetlands within the study area was lost.
North said that's not nearly as high as other areas, like Anchorage, but it does represent a threat to the stability of the river system and the community in general.
"This is our warning that we're not immune from affecting the river," he said.
North added that Anchorage has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands during the past 50 years.
"And the salmon are struggling in their streams," he pointed out.
According to the study, most of the wetlands lost have been filled for either residential developments, roads or industrial uses.
The study shows how the sources of wetlands loss have changed as the peninsula has developed. Between 1950 and 1977, 54.9 percent of wetlands loss was the result of road construction and industrial development. During that same time, residential wetlands loss accounted for just 18.9 percent of the total.
However, as development trends began to shift from infrastructure and industry to residential development, those numbers shifted.
Between 1977 and 1996, residential loss accounted for the loss of 68.78 acres, or 48.9 percent of total loss. That compares to just 33.3 percent attributed to road construction and industrial development.
That trend highlights the need for people to understand how private development can affect wetlands. North said people need to be more aware of wetlands and their importance to the overall health of the environment.
In addition to making sure wetlands remain intact, people also must make sure the areas stay clean and healthy.
"Not all wetlands are the same. (But) the quality really is important," North said.
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