KENAI — Branden Bornemann, environment scientist for the Kenai Watershed Forum, contends there are a lot of river and aquatic systems in the Lower 48 that remain, for the most part, a mystery — and that’s unfortunate.
On those rivers, scientists and decision makers “just don’t understand them enough and don’t have proper data to start making informed qualified decisions” about them.
Bornemann said the opposite is true for the Kenai River and that’s all the more reason he’s glad to be a part of ongoing water quality testing, which was most recently completed on Tuesday at 22 sites along the river from Cooper Landing to the river’s mouth in Cook Inlet.
“To have that data, it can’t be overstated how valuable it is to our scientific community, our educators and the folks that will continue to use the river for years to come,” he said.
For the last 13 years, Kenai Watershed Forum staff has been gathering samples of Kenai River water for analysis. That data creates a baseline setting for determining the health of the river.
“It is setting a standard so we have something to reference year to year for changes that occur in the river based on those 13 years of statistics,” he said. “That’s really the strength of this testing is its longevity and its consistency.”
In the spring the group measures for things like inorganic nitrogen, dissolved metals, total metals, fecal coliform, bacteria, total phosphorus and total suspended solids. It will test those again in the late summer in addition to sampling for hydrocarbon.
In all, the watershed forum took about 120 water samples Tuesday.
“There are all sorts of different standards that we are looking at here,” he said. “We are basically using an analytical lab in Anchorage and when they analyze them ... it basically tells you that if you exceed this limit you have a problem.”
The concerns could be wide-ranging and exceeding limits in certain areas could have consequences for fish, industries and water quality. However, the testing isn’t specifically looking for anything and isn’t yet solely driving management actions — it is important to continue to develop baseline readings to get the whole picture, Bornemann said.
“High concentrations of certain metals might not mean much because we have high levels in the river currently, but that’s just kind of background normal levels that we’ve always observed,” he said as an example.
The organization is focusing primarily on getting good, unbiased data, Bornemann said.
“Unless we understand what the river naturally sits at, then other managing agencies like (Department of Environmental Conservation) and (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) can’t make confident and accurate judgments,” he said. “I have had a lot of inquiries about just basically how to access the data and agencies will take it and look at it however they want to see it, I guess.”
But that’s not to say the data won’t play a role in the future, he said.
“We are kind of transitioning into that next step where now we have enough data to make informed qualified judgments based on this decade-long collection of data, where we need to start focusing, some things that we need to start thinking about,” he said.
Data is loaded into an Environmental Protection Agency database so it is accessible to anyone with a computer. That will allow researchers and other scientists to pull that data and build their own studies and plans, he said.
One example of the testing in action is the watershed forum’s monitoring of hydrocarbon levels in the Kenai, which usually occurs in late July along with the second round of general baseline data gathering.
“That sampling occurs during a very high-use time,” Bornemann said. “Right now there are basically no hydrocarbons or gasoline so there would not be a whole lot of use for that sampling right now since nobody is out.”
In 2008, the water testing stopped returning “hits” on hydrocarbons in the Kenai, Bornemann said.
Several factors including regulations requiring cleaner motors on the river and the watershed forum’s motor buy-back program, which helped people replace old two-stroke boat motors with four-stroke motors, assisting in cleaning the river up, Bornemann said.
“Our hydrocarbon levels basically came up zero after the motor buy-back program was implemented,” he said.
The river was placed on the impaired waters list in 2006 due to excessive hydrocarbon levels in July, but in 2010, it was removed from that list because it met water quality standards during two consecutive years.
Bornemann said he expects more of the same “good news” this summer — no hits on hydrocarbons.
Tuesday’s testing marked the first year Bornemann will oversee organization of the testing for the watershed forum. He said it was a worthwhile effort to help organize and coordinate the scores of volunteers. Each of the 11 different agencies that contribute manpower and money to the testing cause are represented by two or three volunteers.
“It was really fantastic and energetic and the people doing it, their passion shines through,” he said. “... Really it was just a well-oiled machine that I just had to continue overseeing and running. My part is very small compared to what they do for us.”