By Joseph Robertia
When people think of the world-famous Kenai River, it is often a pristine image of sapphire blue waters bordered by a smooth-stoned shoreline that comes to mind, not a jetty made up of hulking pieces of rusty metal parts, as was the case at river mile 22.5 until two weeks ago.
“You could see Cat tracks and junk sticking out at low water. It didn’t look good,” said John Czarnezki, resource planner with the Kenai Peninsula Borough at the Donald E. Gilman River Center, who was the project manager overseeing recent cleanup efforts of this area just downstream of the center.
This was the first project of a much larger peninsulawide debris removal program utilizing Coastal Impact Assistance Program funding, as well as donations from federal, state and local conservation-related agencies and organizations. The program authorizes funds to be distributed to outer-continental-shelf oil- and gas-producing states, including Alaska, Alabama, California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — for the conservation, protection and preservation of wetlands.
“To determine how the funds should be used, we solicited comments from the public and
various area agencies with working knowledge of rivers, streams and coastline conservation and management. We received 30 different project ideas and ranked them based on priority. This project on the Kenai River was actually the second-ranked project on the list,” Czarnezki said.
The highest-ranking project is currently the removal of a fence erected long ago by a homesteader that has, over the years, collapsed into Soldotna Creek, and now is partially blocking this waterway.
“Soldotna Creek is running very high from the spring melt-off, so we’re waiting for the water to drop a bit, but we anticipate getting in there in mid-May,” Czarnezki said.
Meanwhile, the water in the glacially fed Kenai River is at its lowest point for the year, so the project at river mile 22.5 took precedence.
“For this project we had a very narrow window of time to get it done because we had to go in when the ground was still frozen and the water was low to minimize damage to the bank and silt from excavating,” Czarnezki said.
After receiving permission from two private landowners, the work of removing the rusty, half-buried, metal debris and rebuilding the bank was carried out by Soldotna-based Specialty Excavating. The company owner, Jerry Holly, said there was a tremendous amount of material that came out of the ground.
“There were probably three D8 Cat undercarriages, including the tracks, idlers, sprockets and
final drives. There was one D6 undercarriage and sprockets. There were also engine blocks, transmissions, a 1-ton tire, an oil compressor, and tons of concrete and rebar,” he said.
Despite how much unnatural material was at this location, Holly said it appeared that whoever put it there was somewhat conscious of not polluting the river.
“The good thing is nothing we dug out was oil-bearing. It was just iron, steel and castings. No oil pans or anything like that,” he said.
As to how, when and why this junk came to be there in the first place, Holly said he had a suspicion it was placed there as an approach for where heavy equipment might have been driven across the Kenai River during low water periods prior to, and possible during, the construction of the Sterling Highway.
“There are a lot of jetties like this on the river, but I think this was an approach because you can see a gut on both sides of the river here. They probably used this stuff as fill to hold it together. It was armor, almost all of which was on the upstream side like you’d expect for stabilization,” he said.
After removal of the debris, Specialty Excavating restored the jetty to as natural a state as possible, which Czarnezki said is much better for the river and everyone who enjoys it.
“It’s win-win, really, because not only is it better for the environment, but it looks better to tourists that will come to fish in this area and to the property owners who live there,” he said.
With this project completed, Czarnezki said the focus can now shift to other cleanup projects on the list.
These include, most immediately, other than the Soldotna Creek project, several projects north of Nikiski in Leaf Creek and Bishop Creek to remove a washed-in culvert, a collapsed four-wheeler bridge and a washed-in aluminum pedestrian bridge, all of which are obstructing or redirecting those waterways.
“There are also some abandoned cars in the Anchor River, carried in there from the flood of 2002, which we’d like to remove. And in Seward there’s a shipwreck near Spring Creek where there’s a ton of stuff that needs cleaning up and can only be reached at low tide, so that’ll be an intensive project,” Czarnezki said.
Czarnezki said that many of the planned projects will be dependent on the cooperation of private landowners in the areas that need cleaning up.
“The landowners’ cooperation is the key,” he said. “We couldn’t have done this most-recent project without their cooperation.”