Fishermen motor beneath the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge in Kenai last summer. Preliminary results from a study show the river had lower amounts of hydrocarbons than previous years, according to Robert Ruffner of the Kenai Watershed Forum.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Even though the jury's still out on whether or not two-stroke motors will be phased out on the Kenai River next year, preliminary water quality data for last summer is in and Robert Ruffner is pleased with the results.
Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said hydrocarbon levels above the Warren Ames Bridge still exceeded state water quality standards, but they were a little bit lower this year than in previous years. Two teams of scientists from the Watershed Forum and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) monitored water quality standards at river miles 7.5 and 10, respectively, at the peak of the season in order to see what the water quality would be like at the highest use period.
"That's pretty good news because we had less water in the river," Ruffner said. "When you have less water there's less water to dilute the hydrocarbons. If (there) would have been more water in the river we wouldn't have exceeded state water quality standards up from the Warren Ames Bridge."
Ruffner said the number of boats on the river hasn't changed since the last time a comprehensive water quality study was done in 2003, but he suspects that the number of hydrocarbons are lower in the Kenai River Special Management Area because there are fewer two-stroke motors on the river.
"Last time we did a detailed study like this (we had) the same number of boats, that didn't really change much at all and we didn't really have much difference in the timing of the tides," Ruffner said. Scientists reached a peak count of about 720 boats on the river at the same time on a Saturday during the dipnet and sport fishing season.
"The only other thing that changed very much was that the percentage of two-strokes went down a little bit and that's why we think that is having a positive impact," he said.
These findings reinforce Ruffner's assertion that hydrocarbon levels are directly related to the types of boats that are on the water. He said the first study that documented a hydrocarbon issue on the Kenai River was done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1991, but there was a nine-year gap until the watershed forum put together a group of agencies to examine the issue.
"The study where we clearly documented that it was the boats that were doing this was done in 2001 or 2002, where we sampled the river in the last day of fishing on July 31," Ruffner said. "We went back out the next day and we couldn't detect it anywhere. (One day) we were exceeding state water standards and the next day we couldn't detect it at all."
While hydrocarbon levels above the Warren Ames Bridge may have decreased, Ruffner said hydrocarbons downstream were more than two times the state water quality standards last summer. The further downstream you go the more hydrocarbons you're going to find, he said.
"It all adds up," Ruffner said. "It's a cumulative non-point source, meaning there's not one pipe that all this stuff is coming out of. It's all these tiny little engines that are out there."
Restricting the number of two-stroke motors below the bridge would be one way of addressing that hydrocarbon issue, Ruffner said. The Kenaitze Indian tribe has been trying to accomplish that with their two-stroke exchange program. Ruffner said the tribe has purchased almost 180 motors from anglers this summer in exchange for $500 toward a new four-stroke motor. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe will continue its exchange program until the end of December, but Ruffner said it's on a first come, first served basis and there's enough funding for only 20 more people.
"You either have to reduce the number of boats or you have to use cleaner engines," he said. "It doesn't really matter how one goes about (lowering the hydrocarbon levels) from the fish or the water's perspective, but somehow action needs to be taken out there."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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