Tesoro employee Peter Ribbens stood in ankle-deep water snipping the twine on bunches of willow branches. A few feet away from him, several of his colleagues scooped out dirt and debris while others used sod rolls to rebuild the stream bank.
"The culvert caved in on both sides," Ribbens said. "You couldn't drive around here, there didn't even used to be a culvert."
Ribbens, who works in environmental regulations for Tesoro, lived next to Daniel's Lake for 10 years. As he cut the branches in half on the bank of Daniel's Creek on Tuesday, Ribbens said he would bring his kids to the creek to watch the fish swim upstream.
"We've seen reds," he said, adding they are Bishop Creek red salmon, about a foot and a half long. "We've seen the lampreys run."
Many Tesoro employees live adjacent to Daniel's Creek and Daniel's Lake in Nikiski, said Kip Knudson, Tesoro external affairs manager. The product pipeline heading to Anchorage also comes through the Daniel's Creek area, he said, and Tesoro wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on the environment and the community. In addition to lending a hand, Tesoro donated $25,000 to the Kenai Watershed Forum. According to a Tesoro press release, the money from that check will fund the Daniel's Creek restoration project.
Before the Kenai Watershed Forum began doing repairs to the Daniel's Creek crossing off of Halbouty Road this year, the culvert was so smashed, people were fording the creek to get to the other side, Jennifer McCard, water quality analyst and Kenai Watershed Forum apprentice, said. The stream was between 10 and 20 feet across at that point, McCard said, whereas the reconstructed stream bank is only between two and three feet wide.
"Whenever a road crosses a stream (it has) potential to cut off salmon habitat," McCard said. So far, McCard and the Kenai Watershed Forum has surveyed 500 crossings on the Kenai Peninsula, using Global Information Systems maps to find them. "(We were) out surveying them for the past three summers trying to figure out if the culverts were causing a barrier to fish passage."
McCard hovered around the Tesoro employees and several of her colleagues from the watershed forum snapping pictures. Mosquitoes buzzed lazily over the stream while sticklebacks struggled in the current.
"It's great for me to see it come full circle," she said, adding that she initially found the bad culvert. "It was the worst I'd seen."
Bridges are the best way to deal with a stream crossing because they don't impede stream flow, McCard said. Sometimes people will use pallets to get across a creek, blocking both adult and juvenile salmon.
"That's worse than bad culverts," she said.
While the Tesoro folks were layering sod over the willow branches, Kenai Watershed Forum executive director Robert Ruffner used a bobcat to scoop up native vegetation in order to resod the stream bank. Resodding the bank instead of spreading seeds is easier, he said, because the rains won't wash them away.
One of the biggest challenges to funding projects like the Daniel's Creek restoration is finding non-federal support to match grants the Watershed Forum receives from the federal government, Ruffner said. If that support consists of tens of thousands of dollars, he said, it can result in more federal funding.
"Having 15 people volunteer a day of labor is a big deal," he said.
Mike Edwards, habitat restoration biologist with the Kenai U.S. Fish and Wildlife field office, supervised the bank restoration to make sure the willow branches were properly installed. In about two weeks the branches will begin sprouting roots and leaves, providing shade and cover for the fish that overwinter in the creek.
"We wanted to bring the stream to where it should be," he said.
In order to restore a stream bank to its original state, Edwards walks up and down the creek to see how it's supposed to look and tries to mimic that section.
"The goal is to make it better than it was," he said, "to increase access and provide habitat."
Knudson said the Daniel's Creek project is the only stream work Tesoro will do this year, but he added that a project like it would be a good yearly event.
"The watershed forum's a good group," he said.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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