SOLDOTNA - The world-famous Kenai River is about to go down in infamy.
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After years of charting elevated petroleum pollution from boat motors during the peak of the July king salmon fishery, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation proposes adding the lower river to the list of waters considered "impaired" under the federal Clean Water Act. It's a listing that means users - mostly sportfishermen and guides - will have to clean up their act or face the possibility of strict emissions controls or, some hope, access restrictions.
It also casts a pall over the pride of the Kenai Peninsula, home of the world-record sport-caught salmon and a yearly fishing classic that lures political and corporate big shots.
"It's just a sad day for the Kenai River," said Ken Tarbox, a retired state fisheries biologist who fishes the river. "A world-class salmon river is now polluted."
Nonetheless, he and others who want a cleaner river are glad it has finally happened. It could signal a resolve to restore the Kenai.
Lynn Kent, director of the DEC's Division of Water, said the listing won't amount to draconian limits anytime soon. It simply means the state must come up with a plan, which likely would include public education and closer coordination with user groups. If that doesn't work by 2011, the state will have to draft a pollution budget - called a total maximum daily load - and try new measures to meet it.
At that point local ordinances or state rules affecting pollution could be in order. For the Kenai, though, it won't be as simple as it is on industrially polluted rivers, where regulators can point to a factory's pipe and require changes.
"It's not something you can fix instantaneously," she said. It will take participation from anglers and interest groups. "It's not something where we'll go in a dark room and decide what to do."
A first, controversial run at it accompanies the proposed listing: a plan allowing larger but newer and arguably cleaner motors to operate on the river. Some call it a first step to a cleaner river, while others say it's an attempt by fishing guides to get permission to use faster boats at the expense of locals - and to do it fast, before Gov. Frank Murkowski leaves office.
Supporters of the change also claim more horsepower will let boaters get up to planing speed faster, reducing wake and bank erosion by gliding on the water's surface.
State officials, though, say it will take not just a change in motors but a long-term public education plan to clean up the river. In fact, there is disagreement about whether bumping the horsepower limit from 35 to 50 might actually increase pollution regardless of a requirement that the motors meet 2006 Environmental Protection Agency standards.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting public comments about the proposal to list the river until Dec. 1, but officials say the data is compelling enough that if the state doesn't list the Kenai, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will.
"We can't really pass the red-face test if we don't list it," said Timothy Stevens, a Department of Environmental Conservation water official who is the agency's representative on the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board. That board has recommended that the Department of Natural Resources approve the more powerful motors and that all Kenai motors meet the latest pollution standards.
According to DEC records, water at various points along the Kenai has exceeded state standards for petroleum on at least two days of July every year since sampling began in 2000. This year's high measurement was the most polluted yet, at more than 20 parts per billion, or roughly twice the limit.
Steve McClure, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said the timing of the river's listing suggests that DEC wants to halt the proposed increase in horsepower. While DEC's official position on the horsepower issue is neutral, department employees have said boosting horsepower could result in dumping more unburned fuel.
"This whole thing is coming out because somebody doesn't want to see the river go to 50 horsepower," McClure said. "It has nothing to do with emissions."
The river is cleaner now than 15 years ago when more people ran inefficient two-stroke motors on it, he said: "I remember fishing out there when it was a big fog bank with all the emissions."
Independent anglers, including Tarbox, suspect political pressure by guides and others who want faster river trips. He says the Murkowski administration - set to leave office in a month - is fast-tracking the proposal for 50-horsepower motors.
Dwight Kramer, a former chairman of the citizens' Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, agrees.
Kramer's preference is to limit motorized fishing guides, whose numbers on the river have grown from 138 to 360 in the last 20 years, according to the Division of State Parks. He argues that even if guides have newer and cleaner motors than what "mom and pop" run, they're on the river much more often, and for 12 hours a day.
The proposed change allowing 50-horsepower motors, with its requirement that all motors come up to 2006 standards, would push many occasional, independent anglers off the river, Kramer said.
"I'm hoping we can raise public awareness to the point where DNR has to look at this thing and make some real assessments, instead of rushing into this 50-horsepower thing," he said.