The Kenai Watershed Forum's restoration project on Silver Salmon Creek in Ninilchik won't include an anglers' boardwalk or a shiny plaque to dedicate the site. Heck, you can't even fish there, and once the project is completed, the hope is that it will eventually be impossible to tell that a restoration project was ever necessary.
So why put all the effort and expense into one small section of a stream?
"It's not going to have a nice shiny boardwalk, but the end result is that 22 miles of stream juvenile fish can't get to" will soon be accessible to salmon, said Robert Ruffner, the Kenai Watershed Forum's executive director.
The story of the Silver Salmon Creek project actually starts several years ago, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began looking at the issue of fish passage. In a 2001 survey of culverts at road-stream crossings on the Kenai Peninsula, researchers found that 78 percent of the culverts on the peninsula were not adequate for fish passage. Twelve percent of the culverts required more study and just nine percent were found to be adequate for fish passage.
Steve Albert, a habitat biologist with Fish and Game, said culverts may be inadequate for a number of reasons.
"Some are too small, some are poorly designed, and a lot of them have deteriorated for lack of maintenance," Albert said.
Albert said that some are failures because the outlet of the culvert is perched above the stream bed into which it empties, making it impossible for juvenile fish to migrate upstream. In other cases, something may be blocking the inlet of the culvert. Even culverts through which water appears to be flowing well can still pose problems to juvenile fish.
"In other cases the water velocity in the culvert is excessive and the fish can't swim through the pipes," Albert said.
The culvert where Oilwell Road crosses Silver Salmon Creek, about two or three miles above the creek's confluence with Deep Creek, was one of those found to be inadequate for salmon passage. At 4 feet in diameter, the culvert was just too small and the narrow waterway sped up the current in the creek, preventing juvenile salmon from crossing under Oilwell Road and accessing what Fish and Game has documented to be close to two miles of king salmon habitat and more than nine miles of silver salmon habitat.
Ruffner said the watershed forum began looking for a restoration project to do in 2002 and the Silver Salmon Creek culvert came up.
"This particular site had all the makings of a good project," Albert said. "This really was a no-brainer."
What made it such a great project, Albert explained, was huge potential returns on the money spent for the project. As Ruffner said, the same amount of money can be spent to replace an inadequate culvert and open up miles of salmon rearing habitat or to erect a boardwalk that protects just a couple hundred feet of river bank.
Silver Salmon Creek is a significant watershed for production of salmon, but Albert said very little spawning activity occurs upstream of the Oilwell Road culvert.
"Most of the spawning activity was occurring below those culverts, and the culverts were blocking upstream access to juveniles that hatched out of those eggs," Albert said.
Ruffner said fund-raising efforts to replace the original 4-foot culvert began in June of 2002, and in September of 2002 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel visited the site to take a look.
The project became both easier and more complex a month later when flooding from the first of two major storms washed out Oilwell Road, depositing 5,000 cubic yards of dirt and gravel 3 1/2 feet deep for several hundred feet downstream of the culvert.
With the road washed out, replacing the culvert became a necessity. While the Kenai Peninsula Borough initially wanted to place a 6- or 8-foot culvert under the road, the watershed forum picked up the extra cost to install a more adequate 12-foot culvert.
Upstream from the culvert the creek is healthy, with deeper, slow moving water and vegetation along the banks - perfect rearing habitat for juvenile salmon.
Photo by Will Morrow
But because of the road fill deposited downstream of the culvert and years of forcing water to flow through 4-foot culvert, additional restoration has become necessary. From the road crossing and downstream for about 600 feet, the creek has become much shallower just ankle-deep and swifter than it is upstream of the culvert. Upstream of the culvert, the water is slow-moving and 2 or 3 feet deep, with cut banks and vegetation overhanging the creek perfect habitat for juvenile salmon.
The differences don't stop at the water's edge. Upstream of the culvert, willows define the meandering course of the stream while healthy wetlands surround both sides of the creek. Downstream of the culvert, the floodplain wetlands along either side of the stream have dried out. Fireweed, which isn't found in a wetlands area, has taken hold along the bank.
Contractors began implementing the solution this week: rebuilding the channel downstream from the culvert to make the creek bed deeper and slower. Ruffner said the plan is to remove the remains of Oilwell Road that have washed downstream, then regrade and rechannel the creek bed. A new bend will be added to the stream to slow down the flow, and work will be done to plant willows, which were harvested in the Cooper Landing area in early spring, to stabilize the new bank.
Some work also will be done upstream of the culvert to stabilize a small section of the stream bank, and overflow culverts will be added to connect the floodplain.
NC Machinery has donated the use of heavy equipment for the project and an engineer from Anchorage is overseeing the work.
Ruffner has had his hands full just laying the groundwork for the project.
"It's been a real challenge, between getting the permits, getting the funding and convincing people it's worth getting money to restore 10 miles of coho habitat and almost two miles of king habitat," Ruffner said.
"To me, it feels like more (work making preparations), but I'm not the guy running the equipment. Since this is really our first project of this nature, it's been a real learning experience."
Part of Ruffner's role has been to coordinate several different funding sources. Ruffner said that many of the grants available for restoration and habitat projects top off around $20,000, so a project that will cost a total of $382,500 requires lining up a variety of funding sources.
Ruffner said the Ninilchik Traditional Council and the Ninilchik Native Association have been instrumental in getting the project off the ground. Funding also has come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development, and in the form of in-kind services from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Youth Restoration Corps.
Everyone involved is excited to see the project through. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which provides both technical assistance and grant administration, wrote the proposal to get $100,000 in cooperative conservation initiative funding for the project.
Mary Price, the project biologist for Fish and Wildlife, said the project is exciting in part because it's one of the first that isn't being done on privately owned land.
"It involves natural channels design," Price said. "With a lot of our past projects replacing culverts with bridges or bigger culverts, there hasn't been a need to redesign the channel. The flood obliterated the old channel and required us to go in and redesign and rebuild the channel to bring back the habitat value."
Ann Rappoport, the Fish and Wildlife Anchorage field office supervisor, also cited the partnership between government agencies other organizations that has allowed the project to go forward.
"This project is a wonderful partnership," Rappoport said.
The Silver Salmon Creek project is earning both regional and national praise. A Fish and Wildlife National Wetlands Regional Award will be presented July 2, and the project has been nominated for a national award through Coastal America, an association of many federal agencies, Rappoport said.
Albert said this is just the first of many fish passage projects for the Kenai Peninsula. He is in the process of developing a model to prioritize problem culverts. Once that's done and sites for restoration have been identified based on the greatest potential benefits to public resources, bid packages will be developed along with designs to fix each site.
"I'm hoping we can get a few projects going this fall, then next spring will be the major brunt of the packages," Albert said.
Ruffner said the city of Soldotna was planning to upgrade a culvert on Soldotna Creek in August, and cited the culvert where Kalifornsky Beach Road crosses Slikok Creek as a good project.
"I anticipate more work of this type when people start to realize the benefits one culvert gets you miles of stream," Ruffner said.
Albert said problems would be tackled one by one.
"These problems evolved over a long period of time," Albert said. "They're costly to repair and because they've evolved over a long period of time, they're going to take a long time to get right."
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