State officials, anglers and conservationists are crediting tighter rules on boat engines for a major decrease in pollution in the Kenai, the state's most popular sportfishing river.
On Monday, the state announced that it has removed the river from the list of Alaska's polluted waterways.
The Kenai -- a massive producer of salmon and a magnet for Southcentral fishermen and tourists -- joined the list of polluted waterways four years ago after tests showed high levels of petroleum compounds in the river.
Roughly 600 gallons of fuel per day were leaking from motorboats into the river on some days in July, the testing had shown.
The cumulative impact was like dumping a 55-gallon drum of fuel off the Soldotna bridge every four hours, said Robert Ruffner of the Kenai Watershed Forum, which has measured water quality in the river for more than a decade and has been working as a contractor to the state on Kenai water-quality testing.
"They'd be carting you away in handcuffs if you did that," he said.
Due to the contamination, in 2008 the state banned most two-stroke boat engines along a large swath of the lower Kenai. That's despite criticism from some fishermen who didn't believe two-strokes were the culprit.
But that year, the maximum concentration of petroleum contaminants in water collected from a sampling station near the mouth of the Kenai declined by 70 percent. The ban was "the most significant factor," according to a draft report that Ruffner's group recently provided to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
State officials said they removed the Kenai from the polluted waterways list because it did not exceed water-quality standards for petroleum compounds in 2008 and 2009.
A SULLIED BRAND
The head of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Ricky Gease, said Monday that he believes the ban is working and he's pleased with the state's decision to remove the river from the list.
"The brand of wholesome salmon doesn't fit with an impaired listing for hydrocarbon pollution," Gease said.
Before the ban, the river routinely exceeded the state's water-quality standards in July, when crowds of recreational boaters target Kenai salmon runs. Routine testing had shown high levels of petroleum compounds since 2000.
Adding the Kenai to the list of polluted waters required the state to come up with a cleanup plan. The rules designed by state agencies in 2008 require that all outboard engines used on the lower Kenai during July must be four-stroke or direct fuel-injection two-stroke engines. The Board of Fisheries approved a similar rule that year for dipnetters who fish from boats near the mouth of the Kenai.
The state plans to turn the July restriction into a year-round rule in January 2013 for a nearly 80-mile stretch of the lower Kenai.
Using a federal grant, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe offered $500 incentives to help fishermen purchase cleaner-burning boat engines, and at least one engine manufacturer matched the incentive payment to fishermen.
A replacement engine could cost $6,000, but cleaner water and better fuel conservation make it worth the price, Gease said.
While they are lighter and less expensive, the banned two-stroke engines are less fuel efficient than four-stroke engines and leak more pollution into the environment.
A LARGER PROBLEM?
At least two additional Southcentral Alaska waterways remain under state scrutiny due to petroleum contamination linked to boat engines.
Big Lake, a playground for Mat-Su and Anchorage boaters and jet skiers, was added to the state's list of contaminated waterways in 2006. State officials have not yet finalized a cleanup plan for Big Lake, though they have begun an educational campaign to encourage better boating practices.
The Little Susitna River in Mat-Su also exceeds the state's water-quality standards for petroleum compounds on some summer days. State regulators said they haven't collected enough data yet to support putting it on the contaminated waterways list.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation announced the removal of the Kenai and several other waterways from the polluted list Monday in its biennial water-quality report, but it added nine waterways to the list, including three that are suffering contamination from historic mining activity. The three are Salt Chuck Bay in Southeast, and Red Devil Creek and a portion of the Kuskokwim River, both in Western Alaska.
Among the other waterways removed from the polluted list is Jewel Lake in Anchorage. The lake had previously exceeded the state's limits for fecal coliform, a pollutant linked to sewage waste.
Roughly 30 waterways remain on the contaminated waterways list, including lower Ship Creek, affected by petroleum compounds that federal regulators say are coming from the Alaska Railroad.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK