Gravel pit issues could require broader approach

Posted: Friday, July 08, 2005

Complex issues surrounding the impact of gravel pits on groundwater on the Kenai Peninsula may demand a far broader approach than that embraced by an ordinance proposed by assembly member Dan Chay requiring land-use permit applicants to prove their extraction activities would not damage local aquifers, said Homer hydrologist Geoff Coble.

Chay's ordinance isn't asking the right questions or demanding the appropriate conditions, he said. The borough might be better off tackling the wider management problem of balancing competing resources within entire watersheds, not just those dependent on localized aquifers.

In the case of the Anchor River, where much of the recent controversy over gravel pits has arisen, those resources not only include the valuable gravel, but also commercially vital salmon spawning grounds dependent on an undisturbed river and tributary system, the city of Homer's current and future water supply, as well as the quality-of-life assets that drew many residents to settle in the Anchor Point area in the first place.

Confining hydrological assessments to the arbitrary real estate boundaries of a permit applicant's land and that of his neighbors is taking a "postage stamp" approach to a larger problem, Coble said. Making decisions on a case-by-case basis may ignore the cumulative impacts to the watershed as a whole caused by extraction site development that might be spread across years or even decades. Thus, it may be better to develop management practices applicable to the watershed as a whole, he said.

On the other hand, Coble warned, such a holistic approach faces its own set of daunting problems.

The sheer size of the Anchor River watershed, which Coble said covers perhaps 200 square miles from the end of East End Road to well north of the Anchor River, would require a large and costly management bureaucracy, he said. It likely would also mean passing some of that cost on to developers, such as through an extraction tax. None of that is likely to be politically palatable, or, for that matter, very practical, Coble said.

"I've been frustrated about this for 10 or 11 years," Coble said, adding that while he appreciates the effort to find a better way, Chay's approach may not be it. It is, however, "a step in the right direction," Coble said.

Chay said he "would love" to go down the road toward watershed-wide management practices, but acknowledged there is a lot of resistance to expanding the bureaucracy.

He also said there are a host of issues that need addressing within the borough's materials site code.

"I don't know if it would be easier for us to do one comprehensive ordinance or multiple small ones," he said. "I'm willing to go along with however it goes. I hope the operators will get involved constructively."

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