Kenai bacteria sampling cleans up protocols

May 13, 2020

Dip-netters line the north and south beaches at the mouth of the Kenai River. High levels of bacteria have been found in the water during July. DEC will continue monitoring this summer, with modifications to how it warns the public about the risk.
Credit Redoubt Reporter file photo

The Kenai City Council on May 6 agreed to allow bacteria sampling at the mouth of the Kenai River again this summer, with some misgivings.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has partnered with the Kenai Watershed Forum the past several years to sample water quality at the mouth of the river. That sampling has found levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria that exceed state water quality standards. 

The bacteria are found in the intestinal tracks of warm-blooded animals and can cause stomachaches, diarrhea and ear, eye and skin infections in humans, especially if swallowing water with high levels of bacteria.

The Kenai River flats are home to a large gull rookery in the summer and when salmon are running, they bring increased numbers of other creatures to the river mouth, including seals, dip-netters and their pets. Previous source tracking found that most of the bacteria came from birds, with the rest from marine mammals, humans and dogs.

DEC is required to warn the public about the health risk but the strategy for doing so has evolved over the years. Some council members, including Glenese Pettey, were concerned that the city gets a black eye when exceedances are frequently announced. 

“When there’s negative bacterial reports, that sheds negative light on our city,” Pettey said. “And I was just wondering if there was any way that y’all could help mitigate that?”

In years past, DEC issued announcements of every exceedance found in sampling. The frequency has drawn media attention and concern from the public. Branden Bornemann, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said the sampling program has moved to a more general public notification model.

So instead of constantly sending out those press releases or sending multiple press releases out through the summer, one of the solutions was to essentially just let the warning sit out there for the entire summer. So it was released, I think, upon the on first exceedance and it just stayed with the recommendation that you clean your fish and you behave and you act in an appropriate manner in this fishery and this bacteria is not that harmful to you,” Bornemann said.

Sarah Apsens, with DEC, said they’ll issue a general notice at the beginning of the recreation season letting people know that monitoring will be happening, harmful bacteria have been found in the past and are expected again this year and how to find more information, including an interactive mapping tool on DEC’s website. Green and red spots will show samples that come in under or over water quality standards. The webpage will also have information on ways the public can stay safe, especially dip-netters in July when bacterial levels tend to be highest.

“When you’re done fishing and before you go eat that free hot dog on the beach, to wash your hands, and then to rinse your fish in clean water. And to also pick up your trash because that attracts more birds. And use Dumpsters and provided outhouse facilities,” Apsens said.

Anyone interested in getting weekly notifications of sampling results can sign up to a listserv to be put on the e-mailing list. Otherwise, information will be available on the website.

The council voted unanimously to approve sampling through June 30, which is all current DEC funding allows. Another round of funding is expected to be available to cover monitoring from July 1 through early August. 

Going forward, testing won’t be as frequent. DEC plans to use previously collected data to create a predictive model, with more occasional samples used to check levels against expectations.

Editor’s note: Branden Bornemann is on the KDLL Board of Directors.