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Kenai River gets spring check-up

Meyer said the Watershed Forum has been keeping tabs on the health of the river through baseline monitoring since 2000.
Sabine Poux
Meyer said the Watershed Forum has been keeping tabs on the health of the river through baseline monitoring since 2000.

Like any good patient, the Kenai River gets an annual check-up.

That’s the analogy Environmental Scientist Ben Meyer used to explain the Kenai Watershed Forum’s twice-a-year water monitoring project. The forum just wrapped its spring monitoring session, sending six teams of volunteers to several points along the river.

“Some teams go out really early, at like six in the morning, and ride a boat out to some fairly remote spot on the river," he said. "And some teams are just almost walking out their back door to the docks down at the City of Kenai boat launch.”

The idea is to have a simultaneous snapshot of the health of the river along all those different points. After taking samples, volunteers send them to labs where they’re tested on variables like pH, temperature and the presence of metals and nutrients.

The Watershed Forum has been doing that baseline monitoring since 2000, since the organization started.

“Anytime we’re trying to understand something we observe now, in 2022, we’re looking back and comparing it against the last 20 years of data," Meyer said.

Sometimes, that data results in action.

About 15 years ago, analysis on the river showed an increasing presence of hydrocarbons — pollutants that typically come from gasoline and oil. The main source of those hydrocarbons was identified as two-stroke engines from boats on the river. At that time, the river was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an impaired water source.

So, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe funded a motor buyback program. Boat owners could turn in their two-stroke engines and get vouchers for cleaner burning four-stroke ones.

“So after that program was implemented, within a few years there was a pretty dramatic decrease in hydrocarbons," Meyer said. "And the main-stem Kenai was delisted as being an impaired body of water for hydrocarbons and it’s no longer the case today for hydrocarbons.”

Over the last two decades, the forum has streamlined the technology it uses to take measurements.

For volunteer Cathy Cline, one thing has remained the same all these years — the joy she finds in those twice annual monitoring days

“I still get excited thinking about it," she said. "The first time going there and doing it. I always look forward to it."

Cline’s been volunteering since the very beginning of the project.

Back then, volunteers would take measurements year round. She remembers wading into frigid water and seeing dead moose floating in the creek.

"You felt like a real scientist in doing something good for the community and the river which is a vital part of the community here," she said.

This spring, she took data at Funny River, Moose River and Morgan’s Landing.

The Kenai Watershed Forum office sits right near one of the sites, at Soldotna Creek Park.

“This is one of the sites that’s been monitored for the last 22 years," Meyer said.

Demonstrating, Meyer put on gloves and took several plastic bottles out of a cooler.

“I'm going to have my field partner reach in and grab the first bottle. Usually the first sample type we collect is fecal coliform," he said. (That’s bacteria that comes from animal waste.)

He waded over to the river bank.

“Then we would just swoop it into the water, about six inches deep," he said. "And then try to get the line right above 100 mL there.”

That's repeated four or five times. Then samples go to labs at the Soldotna Wastewater Treatment Plant and Tauriainen Engineering.

Samples are stored and data goes online to an EPA database, along with data from all over the country.

“Although there’s only two days out of the year where this field work happens, it’s really a year-round project to keep it going," Meyer said.

Meyer said the forum can always use more volunteers for future monitoring, like the session this summer on July 26.

If you’re interested in volunteering, you can email or call the Kenai Watershed Forum office at (907) 260-5449.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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