For a time during Wednesday night’s Kenai City Council meeting, the passage of funds to pay for water quality testing in the Kenai River this summer was uncertain. Council members felt burned by press reports last year that there was an elevated level of bacteria levels on the beaches during the dipnet season, and they blamed the Kenai Watershed Forum, which is the contractor hired to collect the water samples.
Councilman Jim Glendening explained.
“We had an improvident excursion of word salad last year. And someone, they're taking the sample opined as to water quality and what the sample contained and what the what the outcome would be,” he said. “And if that's going to happen again this year, I don't know if I can support this ordinance.“
Councilwoman Glenese Petty suggested adding information about the other users of the beach in any report that may be made.
“In the light of this when y'all are doing these water samples, would you please take into consideration that we have a gull rookery right there that puts in a lot of trash and excrement into the water. And if that could be relayed to some people who are concerned about the quality of the water that's in the river, and anyway, I would just point that out to you in the event that you didn't know that and you may very well have known that but I just wanted to bring it to your attention.”
City Manager Paul Ostrander cut to the chase in describing the problem.
“So last year, one of the Kenai Watershed Forum employees was on the beach and was interviewed by a KTUU TV person and gave their opinion as to what the data was, what the sampling showed, and it didn't shed a very positive light on our beaches. And I think that the, the feeling is that it was inappropriate for that information to be shared at that point to the study and that it really should have been, the study should have been completed, the findings should have been published, and then that’s the appropriate time to provide information to press. It's not appropriate to do it in the middle of the sampling. I think that’s where the rub is at.”
The Branden Bornemann, the executive director of the watershed forum took the podium to help clarify some of the issues surrounding the event in question.
“I just wanted to clarify a couple things that were just said. We pride ourselves in hiring good scientists, good qualified people to do this work and none of them would — I hate to say they getting accused of saying, you know, giving their opinion on the samples. I do not believe that was the case,” Bornemann said. “There is a DEC representative out there at the time that did most of the talking. Most of the statements were made from her. In addition to that, I wanted to point out that DEC, through this sampling, if there is an experience of the recreational water quality standards, DEC is obligated to do a press release within I believe 24 hours of that exceeded sampled being taken.”
But it wasn’t until he revealed a fix in the Watershed Forum’s contract with the State Department of Environmental Conservation that the project won back the support of the council.
“We wrote into the contract with DEC that they have to run their press releases past the city of Kenai before they become official. So that to us, gave you the opportunity to comment on what DEC was seeing and what was coming out of that particular standpoint,” Bornemann said.
“You got the state to agree to run it by us first?” asked a stunned Councilman Bob Molloy.
“We did. We're going to we're going to try our best to make sure that happens,” Bornemann said.
“Wow, kudos,” Molloy replied.
After that, the council — missing Mayor Brian Gabriel — voted unanimously to pass the ordinance, which, by the way, appropriates about $56,000 in federal pass-through money for the study.