HEA Continues Work Toward More Renewables

At the end of the year, the Homer Electric Association will begin generating all its own power. HEA’s contract to buy electricity from Chugach Electric is up, but the Co-op isn’t done there. Plans are in the early stages for more generating capacity from more renewable resources.

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It’s been a busy year for HEA. New or revamped plants in Nikiski and Soldotna are finished, or very near completion. And development of renewable projects keeps moving along. The Nikiski plant, which added a steam turbine to increase the amount of electricity it kicks out, is already online, supplying energy to interior Alaska, says General Manager Brad Janorschke. They’re selling that power to the Golden Valley Electric Association until the contract with Chugach expires and we can use that power locally.

“It allows us about a six month period to have that unit running online, work the bugs out. With any large system it just takes awhile, so we’ve got this six month window where we can’t use (the power) ourselves because we’re obligated to buy from Chugach through 2013. We can still operate it, base-load it and provide that power to the north,” Janorschke said.

That project ups the green factor of HEA’s operations, increasing output by some forty percent simply by using excess heat to make the power. Another project, further down the time line, seeks to take advantage of the great amount of tidal energy splashing around in Cook Inlet. HEA wants to put in a small pilot project near Nikiski.

“The nice thing about the Nikiski area is one: you have the Forelands there. But in addition, it’s close to a lot of our transmission and generation infrastructure, which means we’ve got generation folks handy to work on this stuff as it connects to our system,” Janorschke said.

Ocean Renewable Power Company is who HEA is working with on this project. Earlier this year, they brought the first commercially licensed tidal energy operation online in Maine. The system proposed for Cook Inlet would produce power when the tides turn what are essentially big water wheels. They would be anchored between 50 and 100 feet down. They wouldn’t produce much power to start. It would just be a test site to see if a commercial application would even work. Janorschke says the biggest concern with harnessing the tides…What does it mean for fish…has been shown to be not much of a concern at all, really.

“Is it going to chop fish up? Based on what they’ve seen so far out in Maine, the answer is no. It turns slow enough that fish, generally, if they’re small enough, swim right through it unharmed or the larger fish just swim around it. That’s what they’ve seen so far via cameras and sonar,” Janorschke said.

Another renewable venture that hasn’t gotten as much attention lately is the proposal for Grant Lake over by Moose Pass. If it’s approved and built, it would generate much less power than the Bradley Lake hydro plant south of Homer. But HEA hasn’t started applying for permits yet. That might be a couple years down the road.

Janorschke made his comments on last week’s episode of The Coffee Table, which aired on KDLL and KBBI.


Peninsula Profile: Cook Inlet Set Net Families

This row of shacks is home to The Salmon People, three generations of setnetters in Coho.

 

Dotting the coast line of Cook Inlet from Ninilchik to Nikiski are some of the Peninsula’s oldest businesses. Many of these commercial fish camps are still owned and operated by the families that started them two or three generations ago.

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Down in Coho live the Salmon People. On this section of beach near the mouth of the Kasilof River, generations of commercial fishers are back for another season.

As I’ve seen some of these camps in action this summer, the thing that sticks out is the distinct culture around each one.

There are actually a couple camps here, but the crews mingle freely and share a lot. You might call Nancy Taylor the matriarch of this clan. She and her husband Alec bought the site 30 years ago. They didn’t plan to fish. But eventually, they got a permit and learned the ropes. It was a steep learning curve.

“I had a skiff, I was in it all by myself, a little, tiny skiff…and I grabbed ahold of the buoy and I just went around and around and around…I couldn’t get it into the boat,” Taylor says, laughing with Amanda Johnston. She’s part of the camp next door.

The Johnstons (that’s the Salmon People) fished for Alec and Nancy for a few years before buying their own site. Now the second generation is fishing and a third generation is, well they’re kids, so they’re mostly just playing on the beach.

But that’s really the essence of what most of these camps are all about: family.

For three months each year, family come from all over. Or very close friends. And they spend the summer on the beach.  This site in Coho is interesting, to say the least. It’s the product of three decades of additions, rebuilds  and quick fixes. There’s a row of disheveled looking cabins backed up along the bluff. And each one has its own personality. Some have their own names. Some of those names can’t be repeated on the radio. It’s a kind of lifestyle, living on the beach. And a spartan one at that. They only brought fresh, running water down to the beach a decade ago.

It’s an intimate setting. Even if a crew member isn’t technically family, it feels like it.

“You can tell the way people walk, by their footsteps in the rocks…their stride. How fast (they’re going). ‘Oh, that must be this person, that means we’re almost about to get out, or that’s just Megan with the kids or that’s so-and-so’. When people walk by, you know who it is,” says Amanda Johnston.

About a 45 minute drive up the beach to Salamatof, it’s largely the same story for the Frostad Fishing crew.  Sarah Frostad-Hudkins and her husband Jason are the third generation, and their kids are crew members now. Her grandfather built the cabin they all stay in 90 years ago.

“It’s emotional to me in the weirdest way. You don’t get to play and work with your kids this way anywhere else,” says Frostad-Hudkins.

“My happiest moments have been here, my scariest moments have been here. You have different stories every year to talk to people about. It’s the strangest thing,” she said.

Sarah’s father Lars wasn’t around when I visited, but his long-time crew member John Sharp was. This, to him, is family.

“I’m almost in tears because it really is important to me; I know that everybody here loves me as much as I love them. And I’m not related to them. When you get outside and you have television and sports and everything else pulling and dragging away, you come back and you renew that family, that bond,” Sharp said.

Sarah’s daughter Shayla is going to school in Washington to become a teacher. That way she can come back every summer and be with the family.

“It’s so unique. I’d come up here even if I didn’t make an ounce of anything. I would just come up here because I love it and I get to spend every day with my family, working hard, playing hard, having fun, laughing, maybe a couple tears. Just a little bit of everything,” Shayla said.

Back down in Coho, the nickel tour of the camp is wrapped up. I didn’t have any luck getting one of their very original beach games started. The Wheel of Misfortune, I’m told, only gets spun on nights when they don’t have a 5 a.m. set to look forward to. So, they cap the night by pulling out the guitars, singing appropriately enough, about the salmon coming back home.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Progress Days Return

One of Soldotna’s longest running celebrations is coming around again this weekend. Progress Days this year will feature a long list of tried and true events and some newer attractions.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


DOT Looking For Ways To Improve Safety On The Sterling Highway

The Alaska Department of Transportation is looking for comments and opinions about how to best improve the safety of a stretch of the Sterling Highway.

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The DOT wants to do something to make the almost 11 miles of Sterling Highway between the Moose River and the Kenai Spur safer. Thirty-eight fatalities have occurred there since 1977.  That and related statistics helped make the highway one of four designated safety corridors in the state back in 2009. Anne Brooks is the Public Involvement Coordinator for Brooks and Associates, the firm conducting the safety enhancement study for the DOT.  She says there have been some positive steps forward since 2009, but much more can be done.

“People have told us in the last couple days that since the highway became a safety corridor they’ve seen some changes in behavior that have been good. They’ve also told us about a lot of near misses, people tailgating, people driving too fast, passing on the right. So we’re hearing about a lot things that we’re looking for a solution for,” Brooks said.

She was posted up in Sterling Tuesday morning at the Post Office. On Monday, she and her team had their RV at Fred Meyer and Safeway in Soldotna, giving impromptu presentations to anyone who might come up.

At this stage of the project, the focus is on ideas and concerns. What’s not working well, what could work better. There are some ideas out there already, of course. Like making the section a four-lane divided highway. One of the biggest things to consider is simply making the highway easier to get on and get off.

“On some of our other projects on the Glen Highway and the Parks Highway, we’re actually adding quite a bit of frontage.”

She says it won’t be directly adjacent to the highway, like frontage roads along the Seward Highway in Anchorage, but simply a safe access point from perhaps a quarter mile off the highway.

Providing safe and convenient access on and off the highways for businesses is just one of myriad interests that are considered, Brooks says. And the projects have to be a good sell to the lawmakers and the government agencies signing off on them.

“We use federal highway monies for a lot of these projects, and those monies, like everywhere, get into short supply,” Brooks said.

The public can weigh in online, too. Brooks says their website allows users to pinpoint their comments to very specific parts of the road.

It will be at least two years before any construction on a new project here begins. An environmental analysis was started in May and is due in November. Next year will see what’s called a final preliminary decision document before a Preliminary engineering report is released in early 2015.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


City Closes Beach Camping Before High Tides Roll In

Dipnetters on the north and south beaches of the Kenai River will need to find someplace off the beach to camp for the next couple of days. Extraordinarily high tides forced the city of Kenai to close the beaches to camping and vehicle parking beginning at midnight Monday.

Alternative camping sites have been set up at the Park Strip in Kenai and at little league and softball fields in town. The closure is only in effect over night, when tides of nearly 25 feet are expected.

The dipnet fishery is already closed daily from 11 at night until 6 in the morning, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Robert Begich says the high tides will affect sockeye fishing up river, too.

“The flow changes because the tide comes in and it backs the river water up. The water slows down so much that you can’t drift. You need current and the sockeye to orient themselves moving upstream along the bank to catch them,” Begich said.

Tidal influence on the Kenai River usually extends several miles upstream to the Eagle Rock area, and the tides expected this week will push that influence even further.

“Throughout the season, kind of below Eagle Rock, the area called Mud Island, is the traditional average (for where the tidal influence begins to wane). But with that almost 25 foot tide, it will move up into Eagle Rock, almost to the Pillars area.”

That the higher tides cancel out a bit of the flow rushing to the Inlet isn’t as big a mystery as why exactly it stalls the upriver journey of sockeye.

“I don’t really know. I think when the water is still like a lake, they just swim all over the place. But basically, it messes up the area to fish, for sockeye especially,” Begich said.

While there is no camping between midnight and 8 a.m. through Thursday of this week, fishing periods for dipnetting have been extended. With a total run of more than 2.3 million anticipated, dipnetting will be open 24 hours a day through the end of July.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Local Fishing Group Suing ADF&G

A lawsuit filed in state superior court this week seeks to hold the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to its stated management policies for Cook Inlet fisheries. The group bringing the suit doesn’t think the department did that last year when it shut down commercial setnet fishing.

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The lawsuit was filed Monday by the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, representing set gillnet fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet. The group is asking the Courts to tell the Department of Fish and Game to stick to its management plan for the region. Specifically, the parts about regular fishing periods and additional periods during strong runs. They say that by closing the commercial fisheries down last year in an attempt to increase the escapement of king salmon into the river, the Department failed to follow the plans.

Last year, fisheries were governed largely by emergency order. Standard management plans went by the wayside when not meeting a minimum escapement goal for king salmon into the Kenai River became a very real possibility. Meanwhile, stronger than average sockeye returns weren’t hit as hard as they could have been. And that’s what’s really at the heart of the lawsuit.

The president of the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, Doug Blossom, called the closures unlawful in a press release, and said that they cost setnetters millions in revenue.

At issue are four separate management plans; Kenai River late run king and sockeye plans, another for Upper Cook Inlet Salmon and one for the Kasilof river.The complaint goes over a lot of specific language in the management plans. When regular openings are scheduled and for which fisheries. How those fisheries are to be managed on a ‘sustained yield principle’, so that there will be more fish next year, too. But it leaves out other language in the plans that suggests a higher degree of flexibility. Take the Kenai river late run king and sockeye plan. It lists all the basics: who can fish, for what and when and how, but then the caveat: “The commissioner may depart from the provisions of the management plan.”

The Fishermen’s Fund seeks simply to require the Commissioner to follow management plans. What remains to be seen is how much different those plans might look like next year. The Board of Fish is set to address Upper Cook Inlet issues at its meeting in January.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


Sockeye Hit, Kings Still Missing

Higher-than-expected numbers of sockeye salmon are pouring into the Kenai River this week. The number recorded Tuesday is the highest single-day count in more than thirty years.

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Here’s one for your next party: What do the Kenai River and the Flemish city of Ghent have in common?

On Tuesday, roughly the same number of fish passed up the Kenai River as there are people living in that city in the Belgium countryside; almost a quarter million. The department of Fish and Game count for the day was 246,396. Since 1979, only one other a year saw a day that big: 1987. Two-hundred-seventeen reds were counted on July 21st of that year, which in total was a good year for sockeye. Two and a quarter-million made it back.

So far, this has been a good year for anyone on the Peninsula who’s not fishing for kings. Commercial setnetters and drifters especially have seen their fortunes change from a year ago, when commercial fishing was shut down almost entirely to curtail any incidental catch of Chinook. The Chinook are still missing this year, of course. Sportfishing for kings is closed through the end of July following a brief opening for the late-run that was limited to no-bait.

Setnetters, however have been given some extra fishing days. Traditional openings are on Mondays and Thursdays. But fishing was open for twelve hours on Wednesday and for a couple extra hours on Thursday. Fish and Game estimates nearly 750,000 sockeye to swim past sonar counters on the Kenai River before week’s end.

But those extra fishing periods this year aren’t going too far to mend the financial wounds of 2012. On Monday, the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund filed a lawsuit against the Department of Fish and Game for not following the Kenai Management Plan last year, when it allowed limited openings for some, rather than enforcing a full closure for all fisheries.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


City Keeping Up With First Swell Of Fish, People To Hit Beaches

Steady streams of campers and trailers loaded with coolers, dipnets and ATV’s are filing onto the Central Peninsula to take advantage of the personal use fisheries on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. The opening weekend was typically busy, but things are going smoothly for the city of Kenai.

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The only thing that might be more impressive than the incredible number of sockeye salmon that come back to our rivers is the sight of the people who come from across the state to harvest them.

“We’ve been real busy doing our enhanced beach clean up, both for solid waste and fish waste,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch.

“Things seem to be, at least at this point, the beaches are staying fairly clean, so that’s been a real positive,” he said. 

It’s the city’s charge to maintain the beaches over the course of the three week extravaganza. That’s been a challenge in the past, and the city continues to search for partners and ideas to help make it easier. A new tool being put to use this year is found at the little huts where visitors pay their parking and camping fees.

“We’ve got computers and power at all of our fee shacks, so we have some real instantaneous feedback as far as revenues. We’re capturing ZIP codes and things of that nature. So we’re going to learn and have more accurate information about a number of things that we’d like to know about,” he said.

Part of the reason for all of that is that it’s just a better accounting practice. And it also cuts down on how much cash has to be handled. Koch says they’ve tried credit cards before and it didn’t really work. But so far this year, nearly a quarter of people parking and camping are paying up with plastic.

While the city is in high gear keeping things clean, retailers are in overdrive. I’ve heard the first Saturday of dipnetting season referred to, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, as Fred Meyer Day in Soldotna. Of course, Kenai might have its own unofficial holiday.

“I’ve never heard of Fred Meyer Day before, I would have thought it’s more of a Wal-Mart Day. I had spoken with the manager there last year or the year before, and he said he’d never seen anything like it. They were stocking shelves 24 hours a day and weren’t able to keep some shelves stocked. And you could see evidence of that by how empty some of the shelves were in the grocery section. So it’s a significant impact,” he said.

Koch says they don’t typically keep tabs on the law enforcement side of things. That’s mostly under the jurisdiction of Wildlife Troopers. And they’ve been pretty busy, too. Trooper dispatches from the weekend showed no fewer than a dozen violations. Almost all of them were for failure to mark fish, fishing without a personal use card or having a net in the water while the fishery was closed. None of those cited were residents of the Peninsula.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


“I’ve Seen Worse…” Beaches Still Calm As Sockeye Move In

The salmon are getting close. Setnetters along the east side of Cook Inlet have been given extra time to harvest the run of sockeye, which is coming in strong. Dipnetters are hard at work, too, though the biggest days of the year are just ahead.

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The first wave of fish and people hit the beaches of Cook Inlet over the weekend. On Tuesday, it was pretty calm. Plenty of people on the north and south beach of the Kenai, to be sure. Hundreds, in fact. Some were napping in lawn chairs, or sacked out on the seat of a four wheeler in the early afternoon sun. There were mini processing lines set up… like small assembly lines. One person would drag the long pole out of the water, then overturn the net to empty out the catch.  Then someone else would smash the fish in the head with a rock. A lot of kids were handed this chore. Some took on the duty with an almost disturbing delight, while some were visibly nervous at the prospect of holding down a 10 pound sockeye and beating the life out of it. Fish were piled on the sand or tossed in buckets. Dozens of tables were set up along the shore. Smeared with blood and ready for the next fish to be filleted.

As I rounded the long corner of the south beach where the Inlet converges with the Kenai River, I met Zach from Wasilla. He’s 21. When I ask how long he’s been coming down here to fish, he simply held his hand down level with his knee. Today, he says, isn’t too bad.

“I’ve seen worse…where you can barely pull your net out of the water because there’s so many people. When the fish are actually running in here, it gets bad. You get people wanting to start fights with you,” he said with a laugh.

The fish aren’t hitting real hard today, but hard enough to keep everyone busy. Counts from Fish and Game showed a surge of sockeye into the river one day over the weekend of about 60 thousand. So the big one should hit any day now. Last year that happened on a weekend, so people like Zach who can be here in the middle of the week might have a little more room to maneuver. He says over the years, he and his dad have spread out their operation a bit.

“My dad came up here from Guam in 1985 or 1986, been fishing ever since. Then got into this. We used to camp here, on the top part, and then ride our four-wheelers down (to the beach). Then I started to drive and I started camping down here. My dad moved to a different camp ground. So we’re getting fish from both areas, ocean and the rivers,” he said.

The Kasilof was a different story. Fewer than a half dozen camp sites were set up there Tuesday morning, and not a single body out in the water dragging a dipnet. Counts on the Kasilof have nearly hit last year’s totals already. Three-hundred-one thousand is the count so far. Well ahead of the 375,000 counted in 2012.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Assembly Could Seek Advisory Vote On CARTS Funding

Funding for public transportation is getting some scrutiny from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. A resolution the body will take up at its next meeting calls for an advisory vote from the public about future funding for the Central Area Rural Transit System, or CARTS.

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The Assembly has been kicking this around for several weeks. But other agenda items like habitat protection and term limits have gotten most of the attention lately. Public testimony was scheduled for June 18th, but that was the same night more than 100 people showed up to talk about anadromous streams. It finally got a reading July second from Assembly member Mako Haggerty.

“The reason this was brought to us was because the sponsor of this felt like every time this comes around, we hear from several people that they don’t like the Borough spending money on this,” Haggerty said.

Assembly member Brent Johnson of Clam Gulch is the sponsor. The CARTS service area stretches from the end of the Spur Highway in Nikiski, down to North Coho in Kasilof, and then east to Sterling.

For the fiscal year that started July first, the Borough sent 25 thousand dollars to CARTS. A move to increase that to 50 thousand dollars was shot down when the Assembly finalized the budget in June.

CARTS has a $1 million dollar budget. That million dollars helps pay for vehicles and staff to transport residents nearly half a million miles each year.

The resolution before the Assembly doesn’t cut dollars from CARTS. If passed, it would simply put a question on the fall ballot for regular Borough elections asking the question “Shall the Kenai Peninsula Borough continue providing financial support for CARTS?”

Haggerty said there was interest in putting even more budget items on the list.

“There were other suggestions to add other non-departmentals to this ballot measure and those ideas didn’t go over too well. So this basically focuses on CARTS,” he said.

The public will finally have a chance to weigh in at the Assembly’s next meeting August 6th.