A local parks advisory board has voted to support a proposal to list the lower Kenai River as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act a move that opponents of the proposal say would be premature and irresponsibly lump the river’s reputation with those of water bodies with far worse pollution problems.
After listening to briefings from the city of Kenai, Kenai Watershed Forum and Department of Environmental Conservation, however, the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board showed strong support for listing the river.
Board members voted 9-2 in favor of supporting the DEC proposal to list the Kenai River as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act, with the board’s Kenai city representative, Keith Kornelis, and Soldotna city representative, Rick Wood, voting against supporting the proposal.
Those favoring the proposal said water samples measuring pollution levels that exceeded state standards support the listing.
Water samples taken from 2000 to 2006 measured hydrocarbon levels exceeding state standards of 10 parts per billion every year in the month of July.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, however, said samples only found exceedances lasting brief periods on one to three days per year. He also said it would be more accurate to look at the river’s pollution levels based on time-weighted averages rather than snapshots in time.
But DEC environmental specialist Tim Stevens said the sample data only paints a partial picture.
“You have to remember we only sampled a limited amount of time,” he said. “If we were to sample every opportunity we could, we would have more exceedances than we do ... What we’d like to point out is that we’ve had exceedances in July every year since 2000.”
Hydrocarbon sampling in the river beginning in 2000 was initiated by the Kenai Watershed Forum, which sampled the river’s water every April and July in 2000, 2001 and 2002, said Executive Director Robert Ruffner.
The one day was sampled in July each year, and each year that sample exceeded state standards, he said.
In 2003, DEC hired an engineering firm to do a more detailed sample study and also found exceedances in July. In 2004 the Watershed Forum followed the DEC study with a second detailed sampling study and again found exceedances in July.
Researchers cut back on sampling after 2005 and 2006 because after the 2003 and 2004 studies they learned exceedances could be anticipated without samples, Ruffner said.
Stevens said whether an exceedance occurs depends on three factors; how many boats are on the river, how much water is in the river and what percentage of the boat motors on the water are two-stroke.
“Anytime we have the normal flow of about 14 thousand cubic feet per second and anywhere around 500 boats on the river, we have a tendency to have an exceedance,” he said. “Once you get that magical mix, then we typically see an exceedance.”
Those supporting the proposal to list the river also say that without the listing is it doubtful that the agencies responsible for looking after the river will cooperate to fix the river’s pollution problems.
Those opposed to the listing disagree.
“The city of Kenai, we’re very much in favor of reducing hydrocarbons on the river,” said Kornelis, who is Kenai’s public works manager. “(And) I would hope that the agencies would not need this listing in order to take action.”
Ruffner said pollution in the river has not drawn the attention it deserves despite evidence that it has been a problem for as long as 15 years. He said the first exceedance measured on the Kenai River was in 1991 during an Alaska Department of Fish and Game water sample.
But opponents say the Kenai River does not deserve to be compared with the heavily polluted water bodies that the list is associated with.
“We still have a pristine river,” Kornelis said. “The river is not the polluted river that people would assume when they see it’s impaired.”
Patrice Kohl can be reached at the firstname.lastname@example.org.
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