As local streams warm, cold water inputs could be crucial for salmon
This particular pocket of Beaver Creek is not far from the road, just a short and muddy tromp away from a gravel parking lot between Kenai and Soldotna. But it’s home to several cold water inputs that could be crucially important for young salmon as they swim from the Kenai River to Cook Inlet.
Cook Inletkeeper Executive Director Sue Mauger said the inputs are like cold water faucets.
“They’re a little place where there’s a constant pump of colder water," she said. "And that really can help buffer when we have those really warm, sunny days to actually have some cold water coming into the creek.”
Inletkeeper is working with the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to diagram those cold water spots in four peninsula creeks. The goal is to keep those creeks, and the salmon that use them, protected.
Here’s the catch — the inputs fall over a mosaic of private and city land. The nonprofits are reaching out to landowners to let them know they have something special in their backyards.
“Everyone who owns riverfront property knows they have really special habitat," Mauger said. "Like, they know that that's important; that’s why they bought the property, probably, is to be on the river. But to then be told, ‘You have extra special property. You have something really unique on your property’ is very exciting for someone.”
On a rainy, cold day on Beaver Creek, environmental scientist Ben Meyer pulled a juvenile coho salmon out of a fish trap and placed it into a viewing container.
“This is an example of a creature that I hope will benefit from some of the conservation work we’re doing," he said.
On warm days, there might be multiple temperature degrees difference between the creeks and their cold water inputs.
The inlet has some of the warmest measured streams in Alaska. Temperatures are expected to climb as climate change accelerates, which isn’t good for the salmon that traffic those areas.
The cold water inputs, Mauger said, are like buffers against rising temperatures. But they could be threatened by new roads or gravel pits in the area.
The nonprofits spent last summer diagramming cold water spots from the sky, using helicopters and thermal infrared imagery. Now, they’re measuring them from the ground to check that data.
“And so that’s honestly half of the fun of this project is we get to go out, we’ve got this little treasure map and we can just, like, run around, trying to find them," Mauger said. "And it’s exciting ’cause we do find them.”
Those data points come up on a map on Meyer’s phone. It does look like a treasure map, with Xs marking the cold-water spots and lines where one person’s property becomes another’s.
Now, the nonprofits will reach out to landowners about conserving the cold water inputs on their land.
Lauren Rusin is the conservation manager for the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust. She said there’s grant money available for people who decide not to build on their streams or put in protective measures, like setbacks.
“And we have a unique opportunity, I think, in Alaska that we have the ability to sort of do it right the first time," she said. "We’re not doing a lot of remediation work or anything here. We have the opportunity to reach out to these landowners who are often first or second in the chain of title, from the state becoming a state from a territory from Russia.”
Branden Bornemann, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said landowners are usually surprised to learn they live on such an important watershed.
“Maybe you have had this property your whole life and didn’t know that there was a tiny little feeder stream to Beaver Creek that’s incredibly important to the productivity of the Kenai River," he said.
Mauger said it’s important to think about the downstream effects of stream health, especially as climate change makes waters warmer and salmon habitats less hospitable.
“This is what I can do — as a scientist who’s been studying how rivers are changing, this sense of, like, doom and gloom, you have to actively push it away," she said. "And for me, this work does that. It helps me think about — how do I give that river its best chance in changing climate? And that’s those cold water faucets. Keeping them going. Keeping them on.”
She thinks Alaskans are up to the challenge of protecting those faucets. First, they need to know they’re there.
Editor's note: Branden Bornemann is on the KDLL Board of Directors.