State officials designate Kenai River, Big Lake as heavily polluted

Recovery plan needed for contaminated bodies of water, says Alaska agency

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Water cleanup plans will be submitted to federal regulators for the lower Kenai River and Big Lake, two of southcentral Alaska's most popular recreation sites.

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State officials placed the bodies of water on a list of the state's most polluted, requiring the cleanup plan.

The state already has proposed restricting two-stroke boat motors on the Kenai but has made no plans for controlling pollution caused by boats on Big Lake in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The lake west of Wasilla is the first in Alaska to be listed due to pollution from petroleum hydrocarbons, said Laura Eldred, a Wasilla-based state environmental program specialist.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation will work with the Department of Natural Resources to address the petroleum problem.

The suggestions could include moving the swimming area or installing booms to soak up pollution.

The state has listed 33 Alaska water bodies as so "impaired" that they require a recovery plan. These water bodies consistently violate water quality standards, regulators said. Some have been on the list since the early 1990s.

The list includes Cheney Lake, Hood/Spenard Lake, a half-mile stretch of the Matanuska River and the entire length of Cottonwood Creek in Wasilla.

Hydrocarbon levels in Big Lake were up to six times the state limit, according to tests conducted in 2004 and 2005. The highest concentration was near a state-operated swimming area and boat launch area on the lake's north shore, Eldred said.

While that's not cause for alarm, it's "definitely a high priority," she said.

On the Kenai River, the state has estimated up to 600 gallons of fuel flows down river some days in July at the height of the sportfishing season.

Last week, DNR and DEC announced a ban on high-polluting two-stroke motors on a portion of the river.

If the plan fails, the federal Environmental Protection Agency could force the state to come up with a new plan. EPA reviews state progress every two years.

"Our goal is to get (recovery) done as soon as we can ... but sometimes the fix takes a while," said Lynn Kent of DEC.

Her department says a switch to four-stroke engines or newer, direct fuel-injected two-strokes on the Kenai likely will solve the problem. Starting next year, older two-strokes will be banned from the river in July, the dirtiest month. By 2010, two-stroke engines without direct fuel injection will be banned year-round.

Robert Ruffner of the nonprofit Kenai Watershed Forum said the two-stroke engine ban is not adequate. The state regulations affect only the Kenai River Special Management Area, which extends from Kenai Lake downstream to the Warren Ames Bridge at Kenai. The last few miles and the river mouth are excluded from the ban.

The river near the mouth attracts dipnet fishermen who use two-stroke motors.

The estuary at the river mouth forms the bottom of the food chain and nurtures salmon smolt that swim seaward in July, Ruffner said.

Kenai Mayor Pat Porter said she expects her city will protect the river mouth by banning high-polluting motors below the bridge.

The Kenai City Council last year considered a proposed ordinance that would have banned boats with two-stroke motor from being launched at city ramps.

The city also created a task force with representatives of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough to recommend local actions.

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