Dipnetters begin their annual migration to Kenai River beaches Wednesday, bringing together people, salmon, gulls and fecal coliform bacteria.
As anyone who has fished the river mouth from the north or south beaches in Kenai knows, the scene is hardly the pristine, postcard setting of an Alaska wilderness. Now state health officials are warning that what you can't see -- bacteria, viruses and assorted protozoa -- might be worse than most visitors realize.
Water samples taken just off the beach last month, weeks before the dipnet season will litter the sand and mud with fish guts, showed elevated levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, according to Tim Stevens, a program specialist with the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Even when registering above state water quality standards, the bacteria themselves aren't harmful to people, Stevens said, but they're unmistakable proof that large numbers of warm blooded animals are using the river for a toilet. If those animals are carrying harmful microbes, like the parasite giardia, the river can be a convenient agent for spreading disease.
Dipnetters can reduce the risk of infection by washing their fish and gear in freshwater when they get home and avoid swallowing water when in the river, Stevens said. The DEC says cooking should kill the pathogens on fish filets or steaks.
In 2011 and 2012, the state informally asked clinics in the Kenai area to report whether they had patients complaining of the kinds of illnesses transmitted by contaminated water. There were none, Stevens said, but he acknowledged the sampling wasn't inclusive.
To call attention to the threat, DEC officials are inviting media representatives to the river Wednesday morning to film workers taking water samples. It's the same day the 21-day Kenai personal-use fishery opens, so there should be a backdrop of dipnets in the hands of waders and squawking gulls everywhere.
Genetic tests of the bacteria last year showed 80 percent came from birds, with smaller percentages from humans and dogs and none from horses, Stevens said. The most likely source is a huge gull and tern rookery on the dunes on the south side of the river within the personal-use zone, where an estimated 50,000 birds nest. When workers collected near-beach samples June 25, they estimated 7,500 to 10,000 gulls were on the mud flats.
A municipal treatment plant that dumps into the Kenai River upstream from the beach reported no discharges above its permit when the samples were taken, indicating it wasn't the source, Stevens said. Samples taken at the Warren Ames bridge, upriver from the rookery about river mile 5, showed bacteria counts within water quality standards, he said.
The north and south beaches and the river bottom between are owned by the City of Kenai. Asked what the city planned to do to keep water quality under control, city manager Rick Koch said, "Nothing -- it's a natural issue, it's probably from bird fecal matter from a nesting rookery area on the south side of the river."
But to discourage gulls from hanging around the beaches, Kenai passed an ordinance that now requires dipnetters to dispose of fish guts and heads in the river. Stevens said officials looked at other solutions, such as composting or hauling the guts to a fish processing plant where they could be ground up in its regular waste stream, but each was too expensive, he said. He acknowledged that the tide could return guts to the beach, but at least some will be washed out to sea.
The city collects $20 from each car that parks by the beach and additional fees for camping and boat launching.
"We get accused of gouging folks and cutting a fat hog, but I've been here seven years -- we haven't made any money yet, in any substantial way, and one year we lost 100 grand because that was the year that Fish and Game stopped the fishery," Koch said. He said he just signed a $50,000 contract to provide portable toilets to the beach area for three weeks and $72,000 for Dumpsters and garbage collection.
In 2012, the city took in $362,000 and spent nearly $365,000 in dipnet-associated activity, according to a Oct. 15 memo prepared for the Kenai Parks and Recreation Commission. The city reported an increase in police activity on the beach that year, as well as increased used of computers at the city library.
In 2011, it took in $18,000 more than it spent, according to the city's annual dipnet fishery report.
Koch said the city has two tractors to rake the beach and drag fish carcasses into the river, but that only works when the fishery has its regular night-time closure. Heavy runs the last two years led the state to open the fishery 24 hours a day, making it impossible to keep the beach clean and difficult to pump the portable toilets, Koch said. He's asked state Fish and Game officials to not do that, but the state appeared unresponsive -- it wanted to manage the run to protect salmon, not the cleanliness of Kenai's beaches, Koch said.
Stevens said the Kasilof and Copper rivers dipnet fisheries did not exceed fecal coliform standards.
Sampling is conducted under a federal grant program designed to encourage states to monitor the safety of beach waters. In most cases around the country -- and even in Juneau -- grants under the 2000 Beach Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act are concerned with the health of swimmers. Alaska's share of Environmental Protection Agency grants under the program this year is about $100,000, Stevens said.
By RICHARD MAUER