A change in state policy regarding how millions in federal pass-through dollars are applied could wipe out highly successful water quality monitoring programs on the Kenai Peninsula, including one on the Kenai River, a spokesperson for the nonprofit agency that conducts that study warned Thursday.
Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said the state has opted to funnel federal dollars targeting non-point-source pollution problems toward state water bodies considered "im-paired" under federal Clean Water Act criteria and away from monitoring measures aimed at preventing clean waters from becoming polluted.
The peninsula has no waters designated as impaired, which is perhaps testimony to the hard work individuals and groups have done to keep waterways clean, Ruffner said. But the state's policy shift means the watershed forum's monitoring program will be among several successful preventative programs across the state that won't get funding this year though they have in the past.
The Kenai River has avoided becoming polluted in large part due to the monitoring efforts of a partnership linking the Kenai Watershed Forum and state and federal agencies, Native groups, nonprofit organizations and municipalities which border the Kenai River. Those groups have shared in funding the watershed's preventative water-quality monitoring project by providing cash or in-kind matches for the federal pass-through grants. The loss of the watershed's grant could imperil those matching funds as well, said Ruffner.
"The state decided to no longer support water-quality monitoring statewide," he said. "They dropped the prevention part of their program."
Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation Commis-sioner Ernesta Ballard outlined her decision to focus federal grant money on "impaired" waters and said projects in line to receive a share of $375,000 so earmarked included seven in the Southeast region and one each in the Northern-Interior region, the Matanuska-Susitna region and the Anchorage region.
"This year's funds are going to groups that are working on impaired water bodies that are failing to support the needs of Alaskans," Ballard said. "I conducted a careful review of our priorities and determined that these
projects are on target with our statutory mandate, and they also help us identify and restore Alaska's most threatened water bodies."
Lynda Giguere, DEC public information officer, said DEC anticipates a total federal grant of $4.5 million. That money will cover a large portion of the work done in the department's water-quality program, including grants for
work on impaired water bodies. What funding is not awarded in grants will go to additional work on polluted waters, she said.
"The level of effort has not yet been negotiated with EPA," she said.
Ruffner said it was his understanding that some $1.2 million originally was to go to non-point-source pollution monitoring programs. Of that, the Kenai Watershed Forum had applied for $75,000 money that would have garnered matches from its partner agencies and municipalities sufficient to continue the monitoring project on the river, Ruffner said.
"I can say with 100 percent confidence that DEC cannot take that $75,000 and do for the Kenai River what our partnership is doing," he said, adding that it was his understanding that the bulk of the money was going to
be used for additional DEC staff or other contracts.
"This is a case of growing state government with federal dollars instead of using a private nonprofit that can do a more efficient job," he said.
Sen. Ted Stevens "takes a lot of heat" for his efforts to secure federal dollars to do such basic research, and the state's action will make such research harder, as well as have serious implications for the Kenai River, Ruffner said.
Programs like that of the watershed forum have served to keep clean waters clean by alerting local and state officials to problems before they become dangerous. If fact, data collected over the past couple of years by the
watershed forum raised an alarm earlier this year about hydrocarbon levels at the mouth of the Kenai River, data that led DEC to launch its own study, which continues today.
"The watershed forum has done wonderful work with the money it has been given in the past," said Jonne Slemons, DEC program manager for the non-point-source water pollution program. The fact that forum monitoring
efforts found hydrocarbon levels at the river's mouth exceeding state norms did, indeed, lead the state to launch its own follow-up study, she said.
"There also are plans to do whatever follow-on work is necessary," she said. "We are not abandoning the Kenai. We have every intention of following through."
On the lower peninsula, river and stream monitoring programs also are in jeopardy because of the DEC decision.
The Homer Soil and Water Conservation District had applied to DEC for $130,000 in pass-through dollars, part of which would have funded another year of a salmon stream monitoring program.
"It was unexpected that we would get denied this fifth year of monitoring money," said Chris Rainwater, chair of the district. "We have four years of data on the lower peninsula rivers and streams. The fifth year was especially important."
Continuing monitoring this summer is important because of two unusual circumstances over the past year a winter of little snow and a 100-year flood event that have affected all the drainages, Rainwater said.
"This data is extremely important to have a credible (data) baseline," he said.
The district contracts with Cook Inlet Keeper ($30,000) for sampling, lab work and documentation. With another portion of its grant, the district also helps to fund Keeper's ongoing citizen monitoring program. Some 23 permanent sites are now monitored regularly by 49 trained monitors. That program also pays for sending trained monitors to educate other monitors elsewhere in the state, Rainwater said.
Ruffner agreed that good baseline data is critical to future efforts against pollution.
"Every plan you read the Kenai Peninsula Comprehensive Plan, the Kenai River Special Management Area Plan, the Chugach National Forest Management Plan every one says you need to collect baseline information," he said. "We have been able to bring partners together to make that happen."
Jim Hall, deputy manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which contributes $5,000 each year to the watershed forum's monitoring effort, expressed worry.
"The majority of the (Kenai River) watershed resides in the refuge," he said. "We are concerned this program is being cut. We are concerned about the health of the river. The fish that swim up the river end up in the refuge to spawn. In my personal opinion, it will be very sad if this program gets lost."
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said the watershed forum is valuable to fishing and the communities along the river. He said he would look further into the matter.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said he could understand why the state would change its focus to rivers in need, but noted that the Kenai River is important, too.
"I'm hoping some funding can be found, if not the money Ruffner was getting," he said. Asked if he would recommend that the borough up its $5,000 annual grant, he said he isn't sure what the assembly would do. For
now, he said he will work with the state to try and resolve the issues or find some other source of funds.
Linda Snow, city manager of Kenai, said Kenai is "just as interested as the other cities are in maintaining the quality of the Kenai River so it does not become an impaired body of water." She said she already had tried to
call Gov. Frank Murkowksi, but had gotten no response by Thursday afternoon. Kenai is a signatory to the partnership agreement with the watershed forum.
Greg Kellogg, deputy director of the Alaska Operations Office of the EPA, said that in the past the federal agency had encouraged the state to pass the federal dollars on to local groups like the watershed forum and the conservation district, but there is no requirement to do so attached to the money. The money simply has to be used for non-point-source protection, he said.
"There is always tension between preservation and restoration," he said, adding that the state has the right to redirect the money toward water bodies already listed as impaired.
Loss of the river-monitoring program could increase the risk of increased river pollution. There is a clear incentive to avoid earning an "impaired" label, Ruffner said. Being considered impaired could force Kenai River communities to revamp such things as storm-water handling practices, force changes in the way the state addresses private septic systems and might have detrimental implications for in-river uses such as commercial and sport fishing.
"There are any number of worst-case scenarios," he said.
EPA expects state officials to begin providing "far more detail" about how they plan to use the federal dollars in about a week, Kellogg said.
"There will be more dialogue, dialogue that in my opinion should have occurred before the press release went out," he said. "There appears to be a major change in the non-point-source strategy a big change that's not
necessarily a wrong one or a bad one, but one that we really need to be talking to them about."
Kellogg said that further down the road, there will be public notices and public participation that may give groups disenchanted with the process a chance to weigh in on the whole preservation-versus-restoration issue. Kellogg said he'll be pushing for both.
"You have to both work on water bodies that are broken and ensure water bodies don't get broken in the future," he said.
There is reason to think the state could be encouraged to reverse or modify its new position, Kellogg said.
"This isn't a done deal. I think a change of mind is a real possibility, otherwise we wouldn't make the attempt," he said. "This may seem worse than it probably is, and overreaction is natural. I'm optimistic we can still make good decisions."
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