Environmental groups praise water monitors

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

Cook Inlet Keeper, which runs a citizen-based water-quality monitoring program on the lower Kenai Peninsula, is feeling the financial pinch of last month's decision by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to shift federal funding previously aimed at monitoring to cleanup efforts on polluted state waterways.

Meanwhile, the Kenai Watershed Forum, based in the central peninsula, says its Kenai River monitoring efforts also are at risk from the changed state policy.

Spokespersons for both environmental groups say the policy shift authorized by DEC Commis-sioner Ernesta Ballard as FY 2004 began was shortsighted and might eventually prove costly to the state, if highly efficient, cost-effective volunteer water-monitors aren't available as early warning bellwethers of changing conditions in vital peninsula rivers and streams.

"It will definitely be more costly to fix a stream that hasn't been monitored, than for us to put monitors on it to spot problems early," said Dale Banks, volunteer monitoring coordinator for Cook Inlet Keeper's Citizen Environmental Monitoring Program.

No Kenai Peninsula waterway is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of "impaired" Alaska waterways, the focus of the new state policy.

While routine monthly testing of the chemistry in the peninsula's rivers, creeks and streams may lack the glamour of highly visible and costly cleanups on polluted sites, the simple, low-tech and inexpensive activity of constructing a reliable long-term database against which future environmental changes in peninsula waters can be measured is well beyond price, Banks said.

Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said it is frustrating for him to think the DEC no longer sees such database collection and citizen monitoring programs as priority uses for the small portion they need out of the millions in federal clean-water dollars coming to Alaska each year.

The Kenai Watershed Forum's program, Ruffner pointed out, is focused on one of the most economically important waterways in Alaska.

Such monitoring by forum volunteers already has paid off, and in ways impossible to quantify simply in terms of money, he said.

"When we look at the tangible on-the-ground results, it is difficult for me to place a value on pulling tens of gallons of motor oil from the Soldotna Creek that a citizen volunteer found last spring," Ruffner said.

The oil was stored in leaky buckets that were actually in the creek itself. They were removed with the help of a Soldotna police officer, he said.

"The only way that got found was because we have a citizen monitor looking at the creek every month," he said.

Three years ago, monitoring revealed that salt being stored on the banks of the Kenai River in Soldotna was leaching into the river. The problem was discovered and corrected, thanks to testing.

"We were able to document with instruments that the chemistry of the water was changing," Ruffner said.

Around Homer, periodic testing has proved its worth in keeping tabs on the condition of urban streams.

For instance, Woodard Creek, which runs downhill through Homer, is showing obvious signs of urban impact. Recent steep slope development above Karen Hornaday Park changed the course of the stream as the disturbed slope sloughed off. Erosion continues today, Banks said.

Woodard Creek was overwhelmed during last fall's flooding. Monitoring efforts conducted by trained volunteers are tracking its recovery by collecting insects.

"In June, bugs were not abundant (as would have been expected)," Banks said. "We just sampled this week. There is much more diversity and more abundance, which indicates the creek is returning to normal."

Without a database against which to measure such parameters, the recent information might have proved less useful. But volunteer monitors trained by Cook Inlet Keeper have been checking in on rivers and streams like Woodard on the lower peninsula since the mid-1990s.

The Volunteer Commitment

Water-quality monitoring ef-forts began for both environmental groups around 1996. Today, Cook Inlet Keeper monitors about two dozen sites on Homer-area waterways and has recently begun monitoring three wetland sites with an active corps of 38 trained volunteers. Since the program's inception, Keeper has trained well over 200 such volunteers.

The Kenai Watershed Forum currently has 20 active citizen volunteers, and has trained nearly 100 since 1997.

The watershed also has a memorandum of understanding with 13 entities that provide funding and in-kind help for a baseline water-quality sampling program. They include the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and other peninsula organizations.

A partner until this fiscal year, DEC is no longer participating, Ruffner said.

"We have enough funding to continue the most basic water chemistry work we've been doing the last three years," he said. "We don't have the money to analyze the data and present it to the public so everyone understands whether the Kenai River is changing."

Ruffner said he hopes the other partners will step in to fill the funding gap left by the DEC's policy shift.

Volunteers signing up with the watershed forum must commit to a year-long monitoring schedule. They are required to visit, sample and test water sites once a month in the winter and twice a month in the summer.

Watershed volunteers take a one-day, in-class session followed by two supervised visits to a water-quality site. Once a quality assurance officer determines a trainee is qualified, he or she is assigned a location to monitor. Each visit takes between one and two hours. Data is delivered to the forum headquarters along with a snapshot of the site.

There are a dozen citizen-monitored sites and 23 other sites monitored by the multi-agency effort, Ruffner said.

The commitment is similar in Cook Inlet Keeper's program where volunteers take about 16 hours of training in a three-phase program. In the initial phase, Banks discusses what is required sometimes would-be volunteers decide the commitment is more than they have to give and drop out.

In the second phase, volunteers learn and perform a series of laboratory tests with samples they've gathered under supervision. In the last phase, they are assigned a site, typically in the watershed near where they live and run through the whole battery of tests under Banks' supervision.

Once qualified, they are on their own, though volunteers are required to recertify once a year. Banks said the recertification process is a check not only on the volunteer's abilities, but also on the testing methods themselves.

Recertification can include splitting samples and sending some off to Northern Testing Labs in Anchorage for independent analysis as a check and balance.

Banks said all kinds of folks have volunteered, including retired people down to several in their young 20s.

"I'm always surprised at the diversity of the people who commit," he said.

Curious about what motivates volunteers, Keeper had an intern survey the volunteer corps recently. According to Banks, the main reason people got involved was simply "to be of use." Many were motivated by a need to help the environment. Most reported finding they liked just visiting the same site and seeing it change over the course of a year.

The volunteers represent an invaluable wealth of talent and dedication that for all intents and purposes is free, Banks noted.

The state's policy shift has yet to put a bite on the Keeper's volunteer corps itself, Banks said, but unless replacement money can be found, that corps could dwindle through natural attrition. While some volunteers have been monitoring the local watershed for years, most do it for a while and leave for one reason or another. What the loss of funding is doing is cutting back on training time.

"There won't be the staff to maintain the program," Banks warned. "We usually train volunteers four times a year. My hours were cut back to three days a week as a direct result of the funding loss. All of our monitoring staff was cut back."

Subsequent funding that came through the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District helped restore hours lost by two other staffers, but Banks is still working three days a week.

Monitored Waterways

As its name implies, the Kenai Watershed Forum mostly monitors the Kenai River along with some sites along tributaries.

Cook Inlet Keeper volunteers have a somewhat broader area to cover. Among the 23 waterways monitored on the lower peninsula are Woodard Creek, Fritz Creek, Beaver Creek, Bridge Creek (which feeds the Bridge Creek Reservoir, Homer's water supply), Diamond Creek (near the Homer landfill), Two Moose Creek (which feeds the Anchor River), as well as sites inside Homer Harbor and just outside its mouth.

Keeper volunteers also monitor Neptune Bay and Peterson Bay on the south side of Kachemak Bay.

A Measuring Tool At Risk

Ultimately, it is the database that will suffer if monitoring continuity is not maintained, something that is key in establishing a reliable set of parameters for measuring environmental change. Attrition in the volunteer corps could mean the loss of that continuity at some sites, Banks warned.

"That impacts the value of the program overall," he said.

Years of work may go down the drain for want of what amounts to very few dollars in the scheme of Alaska's multi-billion dollar state budget.

In July, DEC Public Information Officer Lynda Giguere said DEC anticipated a total federal clean-water grant of $4.5 million. That money is to cover a large portion of the department's water-quality program, she said, including grants for work on impaired water bodies. What funding that isn't awarded in grants will go to additional work on polluted waters, Giguere said.

Cook Inlet Keeper had a $30,000 contract with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District to provide sampling, lab work and documentation on lower peninsula waterways. That was part of a $130,00 grant the conservation district had expected to receive. That money went away with the shift in policy.

At the time, Chris Rainwater, district chair, said the move had been unexpected and disappointing because it was considered vital to continue baseline data gathering in the wake of last fall's huge floods and last winter's record shortage of snow.

The Kenai Watershed Forum had applied for $75,000, money that would have enabled the group to secure matching grants. Ruffner said last month that he did not see any way DEC could take that $75,000 and do for the Kenai River what the forum and its partners are doing now.

Ruffner said the amount of money the forum was seeking seemed reasonable considering the environmental pressures the Kenai River is under.

In early July, Ruffner said that it was his understanding that some $1.2 million had originally been intended for distribution among programs around the state such as those run by the Forum and Keeper.

"We've never seen any written communication on what they plan to spend that money on. We've asked," Ruffner said. "I've heard about three non-permanent positions, but nothing in writing."

He said last week he thought the new hires would be put to work helping to revise the state's clean water strategy.

Replacing The Lost Funds

Until the shift in state policy, the Kenai Watershed Forum, with its source of federal dollars and partnership with various local, state and federal governments and private agencies, had enough funding or in-kind help to run its monitoring program.

"We did not have to request funding from local governments," he said.

At this time, the Forum has no plans to formally request cash from local governments, in part because Ruffner remains hopeful state officials will realize a mistake has been made and reverse the new policy or find some other money to replace those lifted out of monitoring programs.

He added, however, that the Forum might one day seek more aid from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which already gives another environmental agency, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, substantial funds annually to conduct monitoring in Cook Inlet.

Keeper, meanwhile, is hunting for additional funds as it always has, Banks said, adding that he hopes the state's policy move effectively hammers home the message to potential donors that there is a dire need for more funding.

Keeper has submitted a monitoring program proposal to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council that appears to have a good chance of approval when the council votes on its FY 2004 work plan Oct. 3. It would involve a joint effort with the Kenai Watershed Forum.

Phil Mundy, the council's science director, said the Keeper's request has made it through a rigorous peer review by a pool of independent scientists used by the council to determine the worthiness of various proposals.

"They are over the major technical hurdles," he said, adding that it met the council's criteria for a low-cost environmental monitoring program.

In addition, the Keeper proposal has received a positive recommendation from the council's new executive director, former Speaker of the House Gail Phillips, a resident of Homer.

If approved as proposed, the community-based sampling program would get roughly $103,000 in FY 2004, another $86,000 in 2005 and almost $97,000 in 2006, Mundy said.

Both Keeper and the Forum are part of the Citizens Environmental Monitoring Partnership of the Cook Inlet Watershed. That group includes the Anchorage Waterways Council, the Upper Susitna Soil and Water Conservation District, the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the University of Alaska Anchorage Environmental and Natural Resources Institute.

The Cook Inlet Watershed group is inventorying baseline water quality in the watershed, and working to raise public awareness. Together, the partners have trained more than 575 citizen monitors who cover some 235 estuarine, stream, lake and wetland sites in the Cook Inlet basin. As of July, they have contributed an estimated $310,600 worth of volunteer time and more than $500,000 worth of time, cash and equipment to the cause, according to data provided by the CEMP partnership.

That umbrella group is supported by many federal, state and local agencies. Together, they may have substantial clout in appealing for continued funding.

Growing Support

Since the state moved to shift its funding emphasis, support has been growing to urge the state to reconsider.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly unanimously approved a resolution Aug. 5 supporting citizen-based volunteer monitoring "as a cost effective and reliable way to protect fisheries, wetlands and local water bodies," and urging the DEC to reconsider.

So far, the city councils of Soldotna and Homer have approved similar measures. The Kenai City Council is expected to consider one at its meeting Wednesday.

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