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Swan Lake Road culvert replacement will improve fish passage

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2007

Folks looking to get in some last minute trout fishing will have to wait until Friday if they plan on heading to the Swan Lake area. Due to repairs and replacements to culverts at Doghouse and Swan creeks, Swan Lake Road will be closed to vehicle traffic.

Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said the project served to remove barriers that prevent juvenile coho salmon from migrating down the Swanson River and its tributaries. Together with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the watershed forum picked four streams to restore within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the land leased by Chevron in the Swanson River area. This is part of a project originated by both the watershed forum and Fish and Game to evaluate culverts across the Kenai Peninsula and pick high priority streams to restore.

"Across the entire Kenai Peninsula there are something like 400 culverts that are in salmon bearing streams," Ruffner said, adding that Chevron and its employees at Peak Oil Field Services also helped in the restoration project. "The Department of Fish and Game and the watershed forum have picked high priority streams to work on."

Fish and Game and the watershed forum replaced three of the four streams and did what Ruffner called an "experimental fix" on the fourth to remove the barrier to salmon using by adjusting the stream rather than replacing the culvert outright. Ruffner said three of the four culverts had a waterfall at the outlet that was greater than six inches, which presents a problem for juvenile coho salmon trying to make it upstream.

"Our goal was to remove an artificial barrier that would prevent coho salmon from migrating into little creeks that are the tributaries of the Swanson River," he said, adding past construction practices didn't take into consideration how the fish would change when the culvert was put in.

When the watershed forum restores a creek, Ruffner said building a culvert that can handle the amount of water the stream naturally handles is usually good enough to keep the road intact. When culverts aren't designed wider than the natural stream channel, the stream can't maintain its shape and causes erosion on the downstream side, which causes the streambed to drop.

"When you have enough flooding events that happens over time," Ruffner said.

Art Tovar, facilities manager for the refuge, said typically people head to the Swanson River area to do some spruce grouse hunting or last minute fishing. When they dug out the old culverts, creek restorers put in an oversized culvert along with rock that simulates the streambed at the bottom of the culvert. If the culvert is level with the ground, he said the fish don't see that as an obstruction. Tovar said the refuge will try to open the road today, but there is a lot of heavy equipment in the area.

"It's not safe to drive along it yet," he said. "If we get a delay for any reason, I didn't want to get peoples' hopes up, we'll just keep it to Friday."

Even though construction season is coming to a close, Ruffner said the watershed forum has identified a number of other streams that could benefit from restoration. This year $600,000 went toward culvert restoration projects, Ruffner said. Even though he anticipates similar projects in the near future, Ruffner is also encouraging local government to change their road-building practices.

"We're definitely making sure that we build new roads in a more appropriate way than we have in the past," he said. "The borough is setting policy to deal with how roads get designed, planned, inspected and built. Our organization is happy to go out and do the restoration work, but the best way to not to have to do it is to do it right the first time."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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