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Citizen water monitoring may be curtailed

Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2003

A Homer-based, volunteer-dependent effort to measure the water quality of the Kachemak Bay and Anchor River watersheds that has demonstrated that it meets state and national standards could be curtailed because of recent policy decisions by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, according to the Cook Inlet Keeper.

The Keeper issued a lengthy report last week assessing the effectiveness of the Cook Inlet Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Pro-gram, or CEMP.

Launched in 1996 by Keeper and the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, CEMP has since earned kudos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DEC "for its cost-effectiveness and data reliability," a July 15 press release said.

"This report clearly shows that trained citizen volunteers can collect credible water-quality data, which helps detect significant change in the salmon streams and water bodies all Alaskans cherish," said Sue Mauger, Cook Inlet Keeper's stream ecologist.

The report was issued on the heels of an announced policy shift by DEC that will eliminate state funding to many such volunteer-based water-quality monitoring programs, including CEMP.

The CEMP Partnership for the Cook Inlet Watershed currently has 158 active volunteer monitors and includes more than a dozen organizations and agencies. Since its inception, the partnership has trained more than 575 volunteers, monitored 235 estuarine, stream, lake and wetland monitoring sites, collected more than 3,785 observations and contributed volunteer services valued at more than $500,000, according to Keeper.

"Here in Kachemak Bay, we have had volunteers collecting water-quality data since 1996," said Dale Banks, the Keeper's Kachemak Bay monitoring coordinator.

"Our volunteers have collected enough data that we can now look at the information to gauge water-quality status and trends and better understand threats to our water bodies before they become degraded. But these efforts could very well disappear under ADEC's recent decision."

The department announced recently it would focus its attentions on Alaska waterways listed as "impaired" by the EPA. To ensure sufficient funding for cleanup efforts, money was diverted from grants that previously had funded monitoring programs such as CEMP and that of the Kenai River Watershed Forum in the central Kenai Peninsula.

The statistical analysis of the citizens' program got funding from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council in 2002 as part of the council's effort to assess the effectiveness of volunteers in collecting scientific data, according to Keeper. EVOS did a peer review to ensure objectivity.

Over the past year, Mauger analyzed five years of bay and river watershed data to determine if sampling frequency, methods, parameters and site selection effectively met the monitoring objectives to detect significant changes in water quality over time. The program was shown to meet necessary standards and the data was considered "robust enough" to be useful in helping to protect water bodies from becoming polluted.

"The best way to protect our salmon stream habitat and public water resources is to catch problems before it's too late," Mauger said. "Once a water body becomes polluted, there are huge costs to communities and mandatory restrictions on industry and land owners to bring the water body back to fishable and drinkable standards."

Keeper officials argue that the DEC's decision, which occurred with no public input, "marks a startling shift away from protecting salmon and water resources." They called such citizen efforts reflections of "privatization and government streamlining at their best," and decried DEC's decision to "amass monitoring resources in bigger state government, with no plans to monitor unpolluted water bodies in the future."

The Homer Soil and Water Conservation District had applied to DEC for $130,000 in federal pass-through funds, part of which would have funded another year of salmon stream monitoring. Chris Rain-water, chair of the district, recently said being denied funding was unexpected.

Outlining her decision to focus federal grant money on "impaired" waters, DEC Commissioner Ernesta Ballard said funding would go to projects and groups clearly meeting the state's statutory mandate. That means cleaning up polluted waters.

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 full report can be found through a home page link on the Keeper's Web site at www.inletkeeper.org.



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