Cook Inlet Keeper gets own laboratory

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004

For eight years, Cook Inlet Keeper has employed specially trained resident volunteers on the lower Kenai Peninsula to gather water samples from area streams and rivers within the Cook Inlet watershed.

However, the lab work needed to analyze those samples and build a database useful for monitoring long-term changes in the environment had to be farmed out.

That's no longer the case.

Last week, the Homer-based organization celebrated the official opening of a new water-quality laboratory, the first and only lab of its kind in Alaska.

"It means we are more efficient with our monitoring, and we have increased our capabilities," said Joel Cooper, research coordinator and lab manager for the Keeper's research and monitoring arm.

That monitoring effort takes more than one form.

For instance, the Citizen's Environmental Monitoring Program uses volunteers to take samples at numerous sites on the lower peninsula from Anchor Point to Seldovia in order to keep tabs on the environmental health of several watershed areas. Keeper is part of the Citizen's Environmental Monitoring Partnership, a consortium of groups that have joined forces to monitor the entire Cook Inlet watershed.

Meanwhile, Keeper runs the Lower Kenai Peninsula Watershed Health Project under a contract with the Homer Water and Soil Conservation District, employing a stream ecologist who monitors the Anchor River, Stariski Creek, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River.

More recently, Keeper has begun working with other partners, including the Kenai Watershed Forum in Soldotna, for which it soon may be doing nutrient analysis in the new lab.

"The idea is to increase their analyses of the tributaries to the Kenai River similar to what's done on the lower peninsula," Cooper said.

A laboratory advisory committee has been forming over the past few months that would bring together expertise from Alaska and the Lower 48 to advise on lab development and analytical capabilities, Cooper said. Such entities as the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Geodetic Survey's Denver water quality lab, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society will help advise on efforts to coordinate lab activities with other agencies and organizations and provide technical advice on analytical procedures and general lab practices, Cooper said.

Funding for the new lab was acquired through grants, including a 2003 state Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant administered by the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a press release issued Thursday, Cook Inlet Keeper explained that prior to the lab's construction, Keeper had used the lab at the University of Alaska's Kachemak Bay Campus to analyze water quality data for watersheds from the Ninilchik River to Kachemak Bay.

The new lab will permit Keeper to perform more sophisticated monitoring in-house, allowing more schedule flexibility in monitoring water bodies during heavy rain events, spring breakup and when there are incidents of pollution, Keeper said.

The lab, which began limited operations this past winter, has improved other monitoring capabilities on the lower peninsula, Keeper said.

An example is Keeper's ongoing joint research project with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve to monitor marine-derived nutrients in Kachemak Bay. Another involves monitoring sediment build-up in streams along the route of the East End Road reconstruction project. Keeper is under contract to the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, which has a monitoring contract with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and the contractor, QAP Inc.

The Homer Soil and Water Conservation District has been an instrumental partner with Cook Inlet Keeper in monitoring efforts since 1998, Keeper said. Thursday, district representative Shirley Schollenberg was to join the Keeper staff in presenting a plaque honoring the 250 volunteers who have helped collect water-quality data on the lower peninsula since 1996.

Meanwhile, across town, several groups and agencies met at the new Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center to coordinate laboratory research and services in Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet. Groups included NOAA, the Port Graham Village Council, Seldovia Village Tribe, Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, Keeper, UAA's Kachemak Bay Branch of Kenai Peninsula College, UAF's Institute of Marine Science, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"This meeting is a step to coordinate the resources and facilities in lower Cook Inlet in a way where scientists and citizens can best work together to understand and protect our public water resources," Cooper said.

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