Across the borough, scores of culverts installed under poorly built roads at stream crossings impede the migration of feeding juvenile salmon as well as adults returning to spawn, say researchers who have studied the phenomenon over the past several years.
In some cases, the weight of traffic above has crushed those culverts, while in others, storm water runoff has eroded stream bottoms, leaving culvert lips too high, or "perched," for fish to negotiate.
The problem threatens hundreds of miles of salmon habitat vital to the continued health of a critical borough economic engine. Preventing construction of still more badly designed stream crossings is high on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's agenda.
Assemblywoman Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, said she hopes to see a draft ordinance before the assembly by January setting high standards for building stream crossings anywhere in the borough.
A stream crossing amendment to an ordinance already under consideration, Ordinance 2007-33 (substitute) covering subdivision roads, was rejected Nov. 20, but only because it was the wrong vehicle for such a measure, Martin said.
It addressed only certain plats, and would have had no impact on stream crossings in remote areas well beyond subdivisions built near maintained roads, she said.
"I hated to have to do what I did," Martin said in an interview Friday, "but I want to do it right."
During public testimony on Ordinance 2007-33 on Nov. 20, public support for protecting anadromous streams and fish habitat was clear.
"A lot of people are in favor, and I appreciate some of that testimony," Martin said. "A lot wanted stream protection. I don't blame them. I want it too."
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said 70 percent of the culverts in the borough are impeding the movement of salmon in one way or another. Over the last three construction seasons, the watershed forum has spent some $1.3 million rebuilding about a dozen of the worst. There are as many as 80 culverts known to need attention, and more still to be surveyed. Preventing more from being built is vital, he said.
"To address that, we very much need the (proposed anadromous stream) amendment ...," he said, adding that it would be a cost savings for taxpayers and maintain habitat connections.
The culverts themselves were not responsible for all the damage at stream crossings forum workers have seen. Poor road construction above them was to blame, Ruffner said.
The stream-crossing amendment would help prevent such occurrences, he added.
"It very adequately addressed the goal that we are after here," he told the assembly.
Joe Connors, of Sterling, a member of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, said the board voted unanimously to support the road standards ordinance being considered by the assembly calling it "a fantastic step in the right direction." But he said one element was missing.
"The bottom line is we have got to be concerned about the crossing of the streams," he said.
Phil North, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, said studies have shown that development between Vancouver and Baja California has destroyed salmon habitat to where it is likely too late for meaningful recovery. Only remnant runs will survive. Alaska, he said is on that track, but can still take action.
"You have the opportunity to set that track right so that as we develop, which we will and we should, we can do it in a way that will protect salmon and keep it going," he told the assembly.
Others who spoke pointed out that oil and gas is in decline, but fish were here sustaining people long before the advent of the petroleum industry, and will be here long after if their habitat is protected.
Martin said she hopes to begin having work sessions with the Kenai River Center, the watershed forum, the Road Service Area Board, borough planners and the borough's legal staff in December to find the best way to attain the goal of protecting fish habitat while ensuring opportunities for continued development.
That is likely to happen in the context of a larger revamp of borough roads standards well beyond the limited subdivision scope of Ordinance 2007-33 (substitute), she said.
Martin hopes to have at least one work session prior to the Road Board's next meeting Dec. 11. She hopes to have a draft ordinance on the table by Jan. 8, which would put public hearings on the calendar by February.
There are many things to consider, including how stringent road standards should be around salmon-bearing water bodies, whether remoteness and estimated total traffic should be part of any standard's equation, and whether developers can work with planners and other experts in deciding where and if roads should cross streams at all.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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