Alaska editorial: Increasing pollution in the Kenai River is a problem for us all

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Peninsula Clarion:

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It's our river, it's our problem, right? Well, partially. The looming effects of hydrocarbon pollution in the Kenai River stand to hit Kenai Peninsula residents the hardest in myriad ways.

The most obvious, frightening and unforgivable impact is if pollution hurts the fish. Not only would there be less to catch and less to eat, there would be less money to make off of them.

Commercial fisherman and sport fish guides would find themselves even more constrained in their efforts to support themselves on the backs of our finned friends if their runs dwindle, whether from pollution, bank erosion, climate change, overfishing or some combination of all of the above.

The tourism industry that supports visiting fishermen would suffer, as well. As much as locals groan when recreation vehicles come to town each summer, they doubtless wouldn't want their tax burden increased to make up for the loss of municipal revenue that would be felt without the land yachts and the restaurant-eating, knickknack-buying, bed-and-breakfast-staying visitors who come with them.

But fish runs don't have to slow to a crawl for the peninsula to feel the effects of river pollution. Just the stigma of having the world-famous Kenai River on an impaired water body list may be enough to damper prospective anglers' enthusiasm for plunking down the hundreds to thousands of dollars necessary for a Kenai fishing trip.

That's why Kenai River pollution isn't just the Kenai's problem.

Alaska's appeal to tourists is its natural attributes. They don't come for our theater productions, sporting events (except perhaps the Iditarod), shopping opportunities or restaurants. They may enjoy all those things while here, but the thing that gets them to book the trip in the first place is the great outdoors and the creatures that live in it.

Alaska's wild and pristine image already has been drug through the mud by groups opposed to Alaska National Wildlife Refuge drilling, wolf-kill predator control programs and large-scale proposed mining operations. The state doesn't need another black eye from water pollution.

And Alaska certainly doesn't need to have the federal government step in to resolve this problem. But if we can't or won't handle it ourselves, that may be what happens. We on the Kenai and those at the state level of government may know that a drastic blanket solution, such as making the river drift only, isn't realistic, but the feds may not share that insight.

State and local interests must get involved to find a workable solution that is good for the river.

We're doing our part on the peninsula. Every fishing- and river-related group in the area has addressed and debated the issue at length. Just this past week representatives from the Kenai and Soldotna city councils and the borough assembly met to draft and submit their recommended solutions to the Board of Fish. They include limiting motor use and ultimately phasing our all nondirect, fuel-injected two-stroke motors on the river, increasing the use of electric motors and drift boats, and changing fishing means and methods to limit motorized run times.

The problem on the local level isn't a lack of interest in cleaning up the river. The problem is crafting a solution that's fair and deciding which agency has the authority to decide. The cities and borough want to get the river off the impaired list as soon as possible, but feel they lack the jurisdiction to enact a meaningful solution for the entire river.

On a broader scale there seems to be no end of agencies involved in the issue - what is lacking is one agency taking the lead in crafting a plan and putting it in place.

That's where the state comes in. The city of Soldotna is asking Gov. Sarah Palin to designate an agency to take the lead in crafting a pollution solution. Everyone with a stake in the river - that includes Joe Fisherman and representative fishing groups on up to policy-making organizations - needs to work together on finding an answer. But at some point - soon - a decision needs to be made and steps taken to reverse the problem.

One thing in this murky controversy is clear - the more hands that are thrown up over solving Kenai River pollution on a local level, the more likely a decision will be made father up the governmental food chain that will cause those hands to wring later.

Kenai River pollution is a state and local problem and we need to keep it that way, because we'll have to live with the solution.

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