My Turn: To keep our streams healthy, watersheds need protection

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

The project is environmentally sound. It is a phrase often quoted by supporters of the proposed golf course in the heart of Peterson Creek one of the few remaining unaltered and productive fish streams in Juneau. It is a phrase suggesting we can have a golf course and a healthy creek at the same time. After all, the Alaska Coastal Management Program (ACMP) a multiagency partnership responsible for "promoting both economic and environmental productivity of Alaska's rich and diverse coastal resources" reviewed the project and gave it a thumbs up. If government agencies approved it, then it must be environmentally sound.

Careful scrutiny of ACMP reveals a "project review and approval process" geared first toward giving development the goahead, then minimizing impact to the environment as the project proceeds. This is evident in the many stipulations attached to the project, most of which are common sense approaches to protecting fish habitat and water quality in the creek during construction activities. Heavy equipment may not be operated in fish habitat, culverts and bridges must accommodate efficient passage of fish, alteration of stream banks must be minimized, timber may not be yarded through wetlands or streams, silt and sediment from site excavation may not enter streams, and 66-foot buffers must be maintained along all fish streams. These and numerous other stipulations demonstrate ACMP's overwhelming focus on protecting Peterson Creek's channel while ignoring its watershed a disturbing fact given the course will be built on top of the watershed, not the creek.

The ACMP review fails to recognize the "watershed concept" when it comes to land development impacts on streams. Stream water does not magically appear from out of the blue. Rather, it is a product of the stream's watershed the land which captures rain and melting snow and "sheds" this water to the numerous channels we call Peterson Creek. Water's journey from land to creek begins in areas far removed from the stream itself. Rain falls on branches, flows down trunks, drips onto mosses and ferns, and percolates through soils. In intimate contact with the landscape, water moves slowly toward the creek. Thus the water we call Peterson Creek is not merely a collection of raindrops or melted snow, but a complex solution of nutrients and other compounds invisible to our eyes, yet critical to stream health. In short, Peterson Creek's ecological integrity is a direct function of the health of its watershed.

How will the watershed function with a golf course spanning its reaches? Hundreds of acres will be cleared of trees and other vegetation. Soils will be disturbed, compacted, and covered with rock and sand. A once structurally complex and biologically diverse forest ecosystem will be replaced by grasscovered fairways, putting greens, and driving range; and paved golfcart paths, parking lots, and access roads. Eventually, all surrounded by luxury homes. Rain will fall on rooftops, pavement, and intensively managed turf. Surface water laden with fertilizer, pesticides, and other pollutants will flow through artificial drainage networks, manmade ponds, then on to Peterson Creek. Sound environmentally sound?

Those wanting a sneak preview need only visit Juneau's statecertified impaired water bodies (Duck, Vanderbilt, Pederson Hill, Jordan, and Lemon creeks). All were once healthy streams supporting healthy fish populations; today all suffer from polluted runoff and land use that failed to protect their watersheds. Restoring them to even a fraction of their original health will require millions of taxpayer dollars and decades of work. Juneau can't afford another impaired watershed. Let's leave Peterson Creek and its watershed just the way it is. It's the environmentally and financially sound thing to do.


John Hudson is a fish biologist and volunteers his time restoring impaired watersheds in Juneau.

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