Elevated fecal coliform counts in samples taken from the Kenai River and its tributaries should provoke concern but not panic, said Kenai Watershed Forum director Robert Ruffner.
"We already know the system isn't pristine. We know it's not bad, because we have tons of fish coming back," he said during Thursday's meeting of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board.
Still, it may be time to look further, he said.
"We're not ready to point fingers at anybody, and we won't be for quite a while. But it is true that we're bumping up against the standards that have been set by the state to maintain water quality," he said.
The Watershed Forum has sponsored a citizen water-quality monitoring program since 1997 with funding from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and several other groups.
In addition, several agencies began collecting samples twice per year to check for fecal coliform bacterial and aromatic hydrocarbons, which could indicate contamination from fuels and sewage. Those have been analyzed at Northern Test Labs in Fairbanks. The goal is to sample in July when the Kenai River is high and human use is at a peak, and in spring when the tributaries are high but the Kenai River still is low, Ruffner said. So far, the agencies have sampled three times, in July and April 2000 and again in July this year.
Michael Pollen, president of Northern Test Labs, said fecal coliform bacteria may come from any warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, moose and beavers as well as people.
"During spring breakup, we see elevated fecal coliform counts in many rivers and streams in Alaska, particularly those in cities. It's often associated with runoff from streets and from yards where people have their dogs staked out," he said.
A first look last April found elevated counts at several sites on the Kenai River and its tributaries.
State standards for drinking water sources allow no more than 20 colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters. But water that meets that standard must be treated to eliminate fecal coliform bacteria completely before it can be used as drinking water. In waters used for swimming and wading, state standards allow an average concentration of no more than 100 colonies per 100 milliliters.
In April 11 samples, fecal coliform concentrations were 520 colonies per 100 milliliters in Soldotna Creek, 500 in Funny River, 260 in Beaver Creek, 144 in Slikok Creek and 118 in the Moose River. In the Kenai River, the concentration was 50 at Morgan's Landing, 26 at the Soldotna bridge, 38 at Poacher's Cove, 40 at the Pillars park, 320 at Cunningham Park and 80 at the Kenai city dock.
The July samples found less contamination. Still some samples exceeded the standard for drinking water sources, and one exceeded the standard for contact recreation.
July counts were 70 from the Killey River, 40 from Funny River, 30 from Soldotna Creek and 170 from a small creek that drains the area around the Kenai Municipal Airport and Forest Drive. At the Kenai city dock, the concentration was 40 colonies per 100 milliliters in July.
The agencies also sampled total aromatic hydrocarbons.
Ron Klein, DEC air and water data monitoring program manager, said state standards allow no more than 10 parts per billion total aromatic hydrocarbons in water used for aquaculture. There is no numerical standard for a drinking water source. That simply must have no odor or visible sheen, he said. The standards for finished drinking water are listed for individual contaminants. There is no numeric standard for total aromatics.
No aromatic hydrocarbons were detected at sampling stations on the upper Kenai River from the outlet of Kenai Lake to the confluence with the Killey River. No aromatics were detected in samples last April from the Kenai River or any of its tributaries.
However, July 2000 and July 2001 samples found traces of aromatic hydrocarbons in samples from Dow Island to the Soldotna bridge.
Further downstream, at Poacher's Cove, the concentration was 8 parts per billion in July 2000 and 6 parts per billion in July 2001. At Cunningham Park, the concentration was 12 parts per billion in July 2000 and nearly 12 parts per billion in July 2001. At the Kenai city dock, the concentrations were 10 parts per billion in July 2000 and 9 parts per billion in July 2001.
The only tributary where aromatic hydrocarbons were detected was Beaver Creek, where the concentration was nearly 9 parts per billion in July 2000 and nearly 8 parts per billion in July 2001.
The fact that Cunningham Park produced the highest fecal coliform and aromatic hydrocarbon concentrations suggests there may be something going on there, Ruffner said.
Some members of the KRSMA board suggested seeking money for more detailed studies. However, Ruffner advised against hitting the panic button based on samples collected on just three days since April 2000. He advised the board to look again after results are back from samples to be taken next April.
"We probably should have four sampling events before we put more money into trying to figure out what's going on. If things are consistent over two years, there probably is reason to put more money into it," he said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service set out sampling devices in July 2000 that will give a better idea of long-term hydrocarbon contamination and allow fingerprinting to help pin down sources.
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