State removes Kenai from ‘impaired’ listing, citing lack of data

  • Fishermen float down the Keni River near Cooper Landing in this file photo. After years of testing the state Department of Environmental Conservation has determined the river does not qualify as an impaired body after lower levels of turbidity were measured in recent years. (Photo/File/AP)

The Kenai River has again escaped being labeled as an impaired water body because of turbidity, though there are other issues on the horizon.

In the final report the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state agency removed its initial recommendation for the lower 7.5 miles of the Kenai River to be listed as impaired based on turbidity levels. The additional data gathered over two weeks this July didn’t exceed acceptable turbidity levels and couldn’t verify the three years of data gathered from 2008-10.

Turbidity, a measure of material suspended in the water, can be harmful to water quality for human consumption and for aquatic organisms. In the case of the Kenai River, which the neighboring communities do not use for drinking water, the primary concern is for the fish; the river supports the largest salmon and trout sportfishery in the state, including the popular Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery in July.

The listing, first announced in the public notice of the draft Integrated Water Quality and Assessment Report for 2014-16 in December 2017, sparked controversy among Kenai River users.

The listing was not a surprise — the Kenai Watershed Forum, an environmental conservation nonprofit based in Soldotna, had been taking the readings nearly a decade before — but held implications for the sportfishing community in particular.

The Kenai Watershed Forum’s readings found a significant uptick in turbidity in the lowermost reach of the river during July while the upriver readings stayed relatively level. The turbidity in the lower river was lower in June and dropped again in August, though the relative river velocity and temperature were similar.

The area where the turbidity was read at a higher level, a popular area to fish for king salmon, also saw much more motorboat traffic at the time.

However, things have changed since then, the DEC noted in its Nov. 2 transmittal letter to the EPA.

“Public comments were received in opposition and support of the proposed turbidity listing; however, opposition statements indicating that motorized boating use and conditions in the lower Kenai River have changed substantially since 2010 warranted further investigation,” the letter states. “The 2018 turbidity data showed a reduction in overall turbidity levels and in difference between the upstream background site (river mile 23) and the downstream suspected impairment side (river mile 11.5).”

Regulations on the river have changed significantly since 2008. In response to high readings of hydrocarbons in the Kenai River, the state required boat motors running on the river to be larger than 35 horsepower to switch to four-stroke engines or direct-injection two-stroke engines and set the maximum power to 50 horsepower, with exceptions for Kenai and Skilak lakes.

The ban appeared to do the trick, with the hydrocarbon pollution levels dropping and the DEC’s listing of the Kenai as an impaired water body later removed.

The salmon runs on the river have changed since 2008, too, changing fishing patterns. Years of poor king salmon returns have led guides and many private anglers to switch to targeting primarily sockeye salmon, moving to either bank angling or fishing further upstream, moving away from the lower river where the turbidity readings were taken.

Fishermen pointed to this change in fishing effort as a reason to review the data for the determination.

The DEC also funded a boat-count study in July 2018 to determine changes in boating patterns between two popular launches, the Pillars and Eagle Rock, appended to the turbidity monitoring.

The agency noted in its response to public comments that many boats now launch from the Eagle Rock launch, downstream of the original turbidity sampling site at river mile 11.5, so in the future, the sampling site might need to be moved further downstream to capture those boats’ effect.

The DEC is suspending classification of the river as a Category 5 impaired water body until “further information becomes available to reassess the condition of the river,” according to the letter to the EPA. Without the increase to a Category 5 impairment, the river reverts to its previous listing as a Category 3 water body, joining a long list of water bodies that the DEC “has insufficient information on” to make an impairment determination, according to the final report.

“The Department will continue to work with local stakeholders on a watershed plan to prioritize emerging water quality issues on the Kenai River,” the letter states.

Those “ emerging” issues include high fecal coliform bacteria near the mouth of the river — largely sourced to gulls, which flock to the rivermouth during the summer — indications of high copper and zinc readings on the lower Kenai River near the urbanized areas of Kenai and Soldotna.

Copper and zinc readings are frequently connected to stormwater runoff and signs of urbanization. Stormwater runoff can be troubling for salmon health, as in the case of coho salmon, which have shown particular sensitivity to metals like copper.

The DEC had not returned a request for comment as of deadline.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

11/28/2018 - 11:05am