The turbulent debate over a proposal to increase horsepower limits on the Kenai River to 50 from 35 peaked at a public meeting Thursday when speakers on both sides of the debate claimed environmental and safety concerns in support of their position.
“This is not an excuse to make my boat go faster ... and it’s not to get to the next (fishing) hole 20 seconds faster than Joe Connors,” said Greg Brush, who guides on the Kenai River and supports increasing the horsepower limit. “As a father of two little girls, the issue is that Daddy comes home safe and my customers come home safe.”
Brush said running on a 35 horsepower motor limits his ability to plane on the water, keeping the bow of his boat in the air and blocking his vision as he drives.
The debate over what the horsepower limit should be on the Kenai River has stirred concerns about hydrocarbon pollution, erosion and safety issues created by boat wakes.
Boaters on the lower Kenai River have been limited to 35 hp motors since 1987.
The proposal to raise the limit to 50 hp, recommended by the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, was made based on results from the first phase of a two-part Kenai River boat wake study.
The second phase of the study is not yet available. The first phase of the study suggests increased horsepower could play a role in reducing boat wakes by helping boats plane over the water rather than plow through it.
But critics of the proposal say it would be more prudent to address one of several other factors the study said could also reduce boat wakes, including hull shape and loading.
The first phase of the study tested wakes created by four different boat models two 20-foot boats with V-shaped hulls and two 16-foot boats with flat bottoms by loading the boats using varying weights and fitting them with motors ranging from 35 to 50 hp.
Researchers found smaller, flat-bottomed boats required less horsepower to get on step and plane, when compared to the bigger, V-hulled boats, and that the horsepower needed to get a boat on plane also increased with heavier loads.
The study’s conclusions drew pronounced attention to one of the four boats tested.
The largest wakes in the study where created by a 20-foot Willie Predator with V-hull, a boat that has become popular on the Kenai River for its comfort, roominess and because it tends to slice through waves rather than bouncing roughly over them.
At the meeting, proponents of 50 hp complained that the Willie Predator moves sluggishly using a 35 hp motor and that, as shown in the first phase of the boat wake study, the 35 hp motor does a poor job of getting the Willie Predator on-step.
When the Willie Predator was tested at maximum power on the Kenai River using a 50 hp motor, researchers measured a 12 percent reduction in the wake produced when compared with the wake produced when the boat was tested at maximum power using a 35 hp motor.
When conducting the same test using one of the smaller, flat-bottomed boats, however, researches found the change in horsepower made no significant difference in the wakes produced.
While some might suggest smaller boats and smaller motors, Mike Fenton, who guides on the Kenai River, said local boat owners need more power not just to get big boats on step faster, but because they are not just recreating on the river.
Most of the people who have boats they use in the Kenai River also use those same boats to fish for halibut in the ocean, Fenton said.
And a small boat loaded with people, gear, fish and fitted with a 35 hp motor quickly becomes vulnerable when the weather becomes adverse, he said.
Aside from boat wake issues, critics of the 50 hp proposal also say that a higher horsepower limit could elevate hydrocarbon pollution in the river.
In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, Kent Patrick-Riley, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation protection and restoration manager, said an increase to 50 hp limit would likely increase already alarming pollution levels measured in the Kenai River at the peak of the fishing season.
“Most of our boats right now are 35 hp that are four-strokes. If they go up to 50 hp that’s about a 40 percent increase in horsepower and a corresponding increase in pollution,” he said.
Kenai River water samples taken from 2000 to 2006 measured hydrocarbon pollution levels that exceeded the state water quality standard of 10 parts per billion every year in July.
Patrick-Riley said studies clearly show boat motors are creating the exceedances and that DEC estimates boat motors are discharging a total of about 40 gallons or more of gasoline per hour into the river when water quality standard are being exceeded.
The state is not in a position to ignore the problem and just hope it goes away, he said. Every two years DEC has to update its report of impaired waters to the Environmental Protection Agency, a list for which the Kenai River is being considered.
“If we don’t list it EPA will list it, and what would happen if we lose local control?” Patrick-Riley said.
As a result of a listing, the EPA would step in to demand actions be taken to reduce pollution levels.
“And we have to point to concrete actions, you can’t just say ‘oh yeah we’re fixing it’,” he said. “We’re in a conundrum, there’s not a really nice, easy way out. But ... if we increase the motor boat limit to 50 hp we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Proponents of increasing the horsepower limit say major manufacturers do not make 35 hp motors and that most fishermen are using detuned 50 hp motors, creating a regulatory headache.
Valuable law enforcement on the river is wasted when a motor that says 50 hp on the outside has to be checked to make sure only 35 hp is running on the inside, they say.
This year, considerably fewer tickets were written for horsepower violations on the river than in 2005, and although the drop in ticketed violations could be due to compliance, former Soldotna police chief, Shirley Gifford, said she believed a second cause was more likely.
“I have pretty good information that it was because of societal pressure to reprioritize to more serious issues and I think that was appropriate,” said Gifford ,who is also a member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “I’ve been in law enforcement long enough to know that you have to prioritize what you are going to be paying attention to.”
Terry Corenson, general manager at Ron’s Honda Center in Kenai, said that while law enforcers can look for evidence that a motor has been detuned, such as stickers that says 35 hp, paperwork or throttle restrictors, they do not have the instruments needed to test and be sure that a motor is truly running at 35 hp.
But while the environment, safety and enforcement issues remained at the forefront of the meeting, the Willie Predator also emerged as a strong theme.
“Much of the testimony, I believe, revolves around the beautiful boat we see on the river that is under powered the Willie Predator,” said Paul Zobeck, who guides on the Kenai River. “Who wouldn’t want to fish out of that? Who wouldn’t want to own one of those?”
He said, however, that while an increase to 50 hp may very well be the answer to increasing safety and erosion in the river, a change in horsepower limits should be made with caution and with data-driven decisions based on biology.
“Not ‘I like my Willie, I wish it would go faster’. That’s not a biologically driven decision,” he said.
Patrice Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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