Agencies work to keep water program funding

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2003

A draft agreement between federal and state environmental agencies could restore at least some funding for citizen-based water-quality monitoring programs in Kenai Peninsula watersheds that was stripped away in budget moves by state environmental officials earlier this year.

While some federal money given to the state would be made available, spokespersons for two nonprofit volunteer-based peninsula monitoring programs that have been working in local rivers and streams for the past several years said they'd likely have to compete against for-profit companies for future work.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are in the second year of a two-year Performance Partner-ship Agreement. In fiscal year 2003, DEC accepted $4.5 million from EPA, including $1.7 million meant for water-quality monitoring.

By July, however, when the fiscal year 2004 budget went into effect, DEC had decided to refocus its funding priorities on restoration projects to clean up polluted waterways listed as impaired by EPA.

This directly impacted some $964,000 in federal funds historically used for local monitoring, protection, stewardship and restoration projects, EPA said. Immediately affected were citizen-based monitoring projects on the Kenai River, Ninilchik River, Deep Creek, Stariski Creek, the Anchor River and Kachemak Bay watersheds.

Two agencies whose monitoring efforts were affected when DEC shifted its funding priorities were the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Homer Soil and Water Conserva-tion District. Both had filed for grants to continue ongoing water monitoring. Those proposals had made it through rigorous review processes before being approved for funding, only to have that funding shifted in the new budget.

DEC's decision drew protest from environmental groups and the general public. Municipal legislative bodies, including the city councils of Kenai, Soldotna and Homer and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, passed resolutions supporting restoration of monitoring funds.

In response, EPA and DEC officials worked out revisions to their partnership agreement, adjusting the funding for activities remaining this fiscal year. Those revisions are now in a public comment period that ends Nov. 22.

According to information from EPA, the changes include that:

n $425,000 will be spent developing an integrated, statewide water-quality monitoring strategy. This will include evaluating water body information, identifying and prioritizing monitoring and restorative actions and developing a water information database. It will be the first year of a two-year project to establish a method for tracking the status, trends and needs of Alaska's waters.

n $539,000 is to be allotted in the form of grants or contracts for specific work and projects. Of that sum, about $233,000 will be spent on restoring polluted waters, and $306,000 will fund protection or monitoring activities on waters that are not considered polluted, partly through a public call for proposals this fall.

Kenai Watershed Forum Direc-tor Robert Ruffner said the $425,000 DEC still intends to focus on extra staff and planning takes money away from vital on-the-ground monitoring projects in favor of more bureaucracy.

"This is such a big deal to us because there is so little money to do stewardship and baseline monitoring," he said. "The state has never given any money. The only money is pass-through federal dollars. The state wants to take as much of that and hire three employees for one year and pay them to develop a database and reprioritize things."

That DEC has moved away from taking all $964,000 is "a half step in the right direction," Ruffner said.

Lindsey Winkler, with the Homer Soil and Water Conserva-tion District, said she expects requests for proposals for monitoring projects will be issued in December and that they would focus on restoration of specific water bodies, and on monitoring and protection work on waters DEC deems most important.

Ruffner said an Anchorage-based company called Oasis Environmental recently had conducted an extensive monitoring study on the Kenai River, which produced useful results. But Ruffner believes those results will be shown to be largely consistent with those obtained by the Water-shed Forum with its cadre of volunteers, and at far less cost.

Kent Patrick-Riley, DEC's protection and restoration section manager for nonpoint-source pollution, said the watershed forum data had discovered apparent petroleum contamination in the Kenai River and that it had been useful and appreciated. It led DEC to hire Oasis to conduct much more in-depth monitoring in the river, he said. The contracted study was not a repudiation of the watershed's efforts, he said.

DEC officials will discuss preliminary Oasis findings, which are due out in January, at a meeting of the Kenai River Special Manage-ment Area board Thursday. Patrick-Riley said those data appear to back up what the watershed found.

"The bottom line is the two studies appear to be consistent. That's good news," he said.

Joel Cooper, research coordinator with Cook Inlet Keeper, the organization that actually conducted water monitoring for the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, said nonprofit agencies would have to compete in upcoming RFPs, and for a smaller pool of money.

"It is all the more frustrating because the original RFP and the money (funding) went through a stringent review process and that was all stripped away," he said. "Another thing that frustrates me is that DEC is moving away from working with local communities. Whether it is intended or not, they've created that atmosphere. It is a shame. We should be working together."

He said he wondered if agencies like his, the conservation district and the watershed forum would even remain participants in the discussion over monitoring efforts.

For more information about the proposed changes to the EPA/DEC Performance Partnership Agree-ment, call Chris Meade, EPA Operations Office, at (907) 586-7622. Comments may be sent to Chris Meade, EPA/Alaska Opera-tions Office, P.O. Box 20370, Juneau, AK 99801.

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