Assembly digs gravel issues

Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Carving gravel from the floodplain around the Anchor River would eventually destroy the river's ability to support salmon, an EPA river expert told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in no uncertain terms at its Sept. 6 meeting.

"You won't have salmon in those streams if you decide you'd like to have the gravel that's coming out of those floodplains," said Phil North, an aquatic ecologist in the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Soldotna office.

North's warning, delivered, he said, as a private citizen, not as an EPA representative, could serve to broaden the discussion surrounding an ordinance currently before the assembly that would add considerably to the responsibilities of gravel pit owners seeking borough land use permits.

Under current law, pit neighbors who may be facing interrupted or polluted water supplies must prove that a nearby pit was the cause in order to get relief. Ordinance 2005-13, introduced by assembly member Dan Chay, of Kenai, would shift that burden of proof to the pit owners, requiring them to provide, prior to a permit being issued, "reasonable and compelling" evidence demonstrating that a future pit would not cause such damage.

A public hearing on the ordinance scheduled for the assembly's Sept. 20 meeting in Homer is expected to draw a crowd of gravel pit supporters and opponents.

North told the assembly he gets a lot of calls regarding gravel pit operations, virtually all of them from the Anchor River area. He said he believes Ordinance 2005-13 would be extremely helpful.

"It will require that gravel pit operators learn a little bit more about what they are doing before they start," he said. "My experience is that operators know a lot about the gravel that's there.

"That's their economic investment that they have got to know before they start spending money on it. But they don't usually know about the water that is there."

North went farther, issuing a warning that gravel extraction in the floodplain would kill the river's ability to support salmon.

"A warning from my professional experience and also my technical expertise, which is river ecology, is that mining gravel in (Anchor River-type) floodplains over time, will lead to habitat destruction. It completely destabilizes those rivers."

In a later interview, North said floodplain extraction should be prohibited altogether.

North told the assembly that in a previous job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California, he worked on rivers where floodplains had been mined. Those rivers are no longer suitable for salmon, he said.

"If you want to have gravel come out of the floodplains from meandering-type streams like the Anchor River, you can forget about salmon because they won't support salmon in the long term," he said.

No active gravel pit currently operates in the Anchor River floodplain, North acknowledged Monday. But two pits — one built in the 1980s, the other in the late 1990s — have since been "captured" by the river and are part of its current course.

Captured pits can increase a river's erosion rate both upstream and down, and that can have a dramatic effect on riverbank ecology. They can cause rivers to straighten, erosion to accelerate, channels to deepen and riparian vegetation to disappear — along with those quiet pools where salmon lay eggs, and more importantly where juvenile salmon grow, North said.

Gravel pits dug in higher ground above floodplains still can impact the river's ecology by disturbing aquifers, North added.

Gravel lenses — the valuable targets of extraction businesses — tend to store water and feed it slowly into the river system. When the gravel disappears and water flows into the hole left behind, it often makes a beeline for the riverbed, North said.

"There is a water quality issue there," he said, especially in active pits. "I've had a number of calls about that sort of thing."

Floodplains of any similar stream will show the same dynamics, he said. That would include Stariski Creek, where a gravel pit was recently permitted, as well as Deep Creek and Ninilchik River.

North said he was not opposed to gravel extraction on the bench outside the floodplains of local rivers and streams. He noted the importance of good sources of gravel, and said he has purchased gravel himself. But he supports Chay's proposed changes to the permit process, saying they would ensure that gravel pit owners and borough officials would have the kind of information they need when considering permit applications, he said.

"We need to know what is happening in the groundwater to make intelligent decisions," he said.

Chay said Monday that gravel extraction from the floodplain was not the catalyst for writing the ordinance. However, the proposed law does attempt to address what he said was "a whole host of issues begging to be dealt with," including some of interest to pit owners.

For instance, having to acquire a third-party's opinion regarding the level of threat a pit might pose to an aquifer and determining useful mitigation measures could serve to reduce conflicts between pit operators and their neighbors. That would be a good thing, Chay said.

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