Researchers keep an eye on Kenai River water quality


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Branden Bornemann, environmental scientist for the of the Kenai Watershed Forum, takes a water sample at the mouth of the Kenai River for an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and City of Kenai program that measures bacteria in the water in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo/Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

A mass of seagulls, salmon and now dipnetters at the mouth of the Kenai River are attracting enough bacteria to exceed state and federal water quality standards for certain kinds of bacteria.

By Tuesday measurements on the river showed elevated levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria in the water and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is warning dipnetters — whose season opened Wednesday — to wash their fish and avoid getting the water in their mouths.

“Probably the people who are most susceptible are the kids that are out there wading around and they’re getting water in their mouths, not intentionally, but they do because they’re kids,” said Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Environmental Specialist Tim Stevens.

While the fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria themselves are not dangerous, they are harbingers of harmful pathogens, Stevens said.

While there are tests available for pathogens, they’re not timely and can be expensive.

“It’s multiple series of tests,” Stevens said. “You kind of want to notify the public as soon as you have a problem ... so they go with the easier one that gives you quicker results. So what we have here is indicators, not evidence of pathogens.”

Researchers from the Kenai Watershed Forum — a non-profit environmental group — took samples at the mouth of the river on Wednesday and held a media event with the DEC to call attention to the problem.

Earlier this summer, DEC put out a release warning people to avoid exposure such as drinking and swimming in the water and to bathe after coming in contact with it.

Stevens said the city of Kenai and DEC were encouraging dipnetters to put their fish waste back into the water to keep seagulls from congregating around it, eating and then defecating on the beach in large numbers.

While the robust dipnet fishery, with all its waste, can contribute to the elevated levels of bacteria the river’s recreational water quality standards for enterococci and fecal coliform were exceeded in June — well before the fishery opened.

Other factors are at play such as the large rookery of birds — watershed forum researchers estimated between 7,500 and 10,000 on one day in June — and bacteria migrating downstream from other sources.

A testing site near the Warren Ames Bridge, thought to be where the salt water intrusion ends and fresh water begins, sometimes shows exceedences in bacterial standards as well, Stevens said.

“This is one thing that, as Alaskans, we kind of expect that everywhere we go, there’s lots of wildlife,” Stevens said. “So we have the potential of having high bacteria counts in any area similar to this. For instance, if you were to go to the Denali National Park and get a backpack permit, they have a checklist and that checklist says ‘make sure you have a water purifier or some kind of tablet or way to clean the water’ because you run the risk of getting sick out in even this pristine location. It’s Alaska.”

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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