State pulls water quality grants from volunteers

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Department of Environmental Conservation has eliminated about $1.3 million in federal grants used to support citizen volunteers who watch for water pollution around Alaska.

The state will divert the money to its own operations.

The decision was an intentional policy change, said DEC Commissioner Ernesta Ballard. The agency has done a poor job overseeing volunteer water monitoring, she said, resulting in a patchwork of information that was not as useful as it might be.

She said she wants the DEC to develop a comprehensive plan for water quality monitoring and a database, but it will require using the money that had been used for volunteers.

Once the plan is done, Ballard said, the state will know how much information is needed on each stream and how best to collect it, plus a way to coordinate future efforts.

''We haven't done that in the past so we could leverage the data'' using information from one stream to predict what might happen elsewhere, she said.

Groups that lost federal funding called the move shortsighted. It eliminates an inexpensive yet far-reaching network of water quality monitors that can detect pollution early, said Robert Ruffner, head of one of the groups, the Kenai Watershed Forum.

''I wouldn't be raising any concerns if the state was going to be picking up the ball and doing what we've been doing,'' he said, but it's not. The programs will simply disappear.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which issues the grant money, apparently agrees. It has applauded past efforts of the volunteer groups, said Greg Kellogg, deputy director of the Alaska operations office.

''All that infrastructure we've built is likely to go away,'' he said, and with it years of valuable work.

The federal government gives Alaska about $3 million a year to address the kinds of water pollution that do not come out the end of a pipe. It's called nonpoint source pollution because it flows off parking lots and hillsides, out of streams and storm drains, Kellogg said.

EPA prefers the money be used for restoring polluted water bodies and for monitoring efforts that check whether such pollution is increasing or decreasing.

Alaska typically passes about half its federal grant, around $1.7 million a year, on to citizen groups that monitor water quality. Volunteers typically take water samples once or twice a month, which are analyzed by a laboratory and reported to the state and federal agencies.

That program changed this year without notice. The state last week announced its grants for 2003. It gave out less than $400,000, all of it aimed at restoration rather than long-term monitoring. It kept the remaining $1.3 million for internal operations.

The policy change took the EPA by surprise, Kellogg said. Even if the state resumes the voluntary programs later, ''you can't have a two- or three-year gap and have meaningful data.''

People who run the programs say there is more at stake than data. The monitors are the early warning system of water pollution. The earlier a problem is seen, the cheaper it is to fix, Ruffner said.

''I don't know what kind of hardships state agencies are facing, but it just doesn't seem right to cut the people who are out there doing the work,'' he said.

His group brings together 14 entities, from the cities of Kenai and Soldotna to commercial fishermen and Native tribes, in a cooperative venture that keeps tabs on the water quality of one of Alaska's premier salmon streams, the Kenai River. That association is now jeopardized, Ruffner said.

''This is not just one person that's losing funding. All those entities are losing funding. DEC is turning its back on all of them,'' he said.

Kellogg of the EPA hopes to persuade Ballard to reinstate the volunteer monitoring programs. He is withholding a portion of the federal grant until the issue is resolved, he said.

Ballard is not budging.

''We are embarking on the course we have announced,'' she said.

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