State’s latest water quality report has bad news for popular Kenai River

A number of fishing boats crowded near the mouth of the Kenai River on July 15, 2012 in Kenai, Alaska. A portion of the river, upstream of this one, has been flagged by the state for violating water quality standards for turbidity. (Photo courtesy Brian Henderson)

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is calling for comments on its newest water quality report.

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The report is part of the federal Clean Water Act program that requires each state to develop plans to fix water bodies that have been polluted.

A new one is supposed to be published every two years, but the state hasn’t put one out for five. Each time the state puts out one of these lists, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

If there were a popularity contest for rivers in Alaska, judging by the thousands of people who visit the Kenai River every year — it would win.

Anglers zip around in motorboats, looking for the perfect fishing holes. They wriggle into their waders and cast from the shoreline. Or, they just stand in the river mouth holding these long-poled nets, shoulder-to-shoulder by the hundreds.

This year, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation put out a new Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report. It’s a federally mandated list of all of the rivers, lakes and water bodies in the state that have been polluted — and how things have progressed in cleaning them up.

“It really is, you know, it’s the report card on the health of Alaska’s water,” Environmental Program Specialist Drew Grant said. He’s been supervising the collection and release of the data in these reports for decades.

On this year’s report card, the Kenai River is getting a failing grade. The state is recommending that it be put on a list of polluted waterways. Sometimes, when the state flags a river as polluted, it’s because of oil or trash or industrial pollution. But, in the case of the Kenai, it’s likely the effect of too many people using it too often.

Jack Sinclair is the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. As part of the study that got the river listed, he sat at one spot on the river for 12 hours, counting boats.

“It was 2,000 boats that passed. That’s not the number of boats that were on the river, but that’s how many passes happened along that stretch,” Sinclair said.

Each of those 2,000 passes kicks up a cloud in the water. That’s exactly what the state says is wrong on about 7.5 miles of the Kenai River. It doesn’t meet the state’s water quality standards for turbidity.

Turbidity is a measurement of the cloudiness. The simplest way to think of it is like smog in the water. And, a smoggy river is not good for anything living in it. And, it’s not good for people — for drinking, swimming or fishing.

The Kenai isn’t the only river in the state having this problem. This year’s report adds the Little Susitna River in the Mat-Su borough to the impaired list, for the same turbidity problem. The Little Su also has a problem with petroleum pollution. The state is also proposing the addition of Lake Lucille in the Mat-Su borough for elevated levels of lead and zinc.

Once a river is listed as impaired, it kicks off a process at the state and federal levels that require the water be cleaned, or in this case cleared.

“It is a year’s (long) process,” Division of Water Section Manager Cindy Guilder said. “Some of that is driven by ‘how difficult is the problem to solve?’ and what’s the commitment by the community.”

There are three levels of pollution standards. The first, and easiest to violate is whether there’s enough pollution to make the water unsafe for people to drink. The second is recreation — is the water safe to be in, clear enough to fish in? The last, and hardest to violate, is the standard for the safety of wildlife and fish.

The Kenai River violates drinking water and recreational standards. But should a popular sportfishing river be required to meet drinking water standards?

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, doesn’t think it should. Gease’s association is a non-profit group that advocates for sport and personal use fishermen in the state.

“Not too many people for a thirst of clear water would hunker down to the Kenai any place along that section and grab a glass of water to drink,” Gease said, “It’s all cloudy. It’s silty. It probably wouldn’t be very good for you.”

While he doesn’t agree with the state’s standards — Gease has several ideas for things that can be done to lower the turbidity on the river. Most all of them involve reducing boat traffic.

Right now, fishing guides get their own special times on the river to take clients fishing. That means a lot of boat traffic hits the river at the same time.

“They call it a shotgun start,” Gease said. “Maybe doing away with that, getting some other regulations for guide hours so everybody’s not starting at exactly the same time.”

Or, Gease says, get people out of their boats and let them fish from shore.

State environmental scientists like this. They like it when the who use the river come up with ways to change their habits, for the health of the river.

The state’s report is still in draft form, which means some things could change. The state is taking public comments until January 29.

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk , she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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