By Jenny Neyman
Photo by Patrice Kohl, Redoubt Reporter. Trees double over the Killey River as high waters discharge large amounts of mud and debris into the Kenai River in a past summer. Turbidity, the amount of dissolved solids suspended in water, is variable on the Kenai River. However, testing by the Kenai Watershed Forum shows turbidity above normal levels result from increased boat traffic during fishing season.
Like a salmon returning to the Kenai, Ninilchik, Anchor or the many other Kenai Peninsula rivers and streams it seeks to protect, the Kenai Watershed Forum sees itself as needing to keep pushing forward to get where it wants to go. Also like a salmon, it faces the possibility of strong currents and difficult obstructions ahead.
At its annual membership meeting Thursday at the Donald E. Gilman River Center on Funny River Road, the organization gave a look back at its accomplishments and growth, outlined its current priorities and attempted to lift the veil to what may be an even more active, yet challenging, future.
“I can tell you that probably the next three to five years the Watershed Forum will look a lot different than it does right now. The credibility is so high with the work it does, it’s continually being asked to do more work in different areas. But we don’t want to be reactive, we want to be proactive,” said Jim Butler, board president.
“We’ve come up with what we think is a roadmap that doesn’t just meet the needs of what we think our members and supporters want to do, but it meets the needs of the constituents that we deal with and serve,” he said.
Meeting those needs could increasingly become an ebb and flow of public sentiment, if what’s good for the watershed conflicts with what’s good for people’s politics or pocketbooks.
“The practical reality is this — we’re not researching really happy things. We’re trying to identify problems and challenges, and what that means is you’re the messenger, in many cases, of bad news. So we have to be able to have enough backbone by membership supporting it, and supporting us delivering this news to policy makers and being prepared to push back. And I think that’s the next evolutionary step we’re getting ready to take,” Butler said.
“Most the impacts we’re dealing with are caused by people. So what happens? We’ve got to find ways to change behavior, change policy, and most people that need to make changes, they don’t want to be changed. So we come up against a lot of folks that are challenging us in different forms that we haven’t been at before,” he said.
The Kenai Watershed Forum was founded in 1997 by local citizens concerned about the health of the Kenai River watershed. Executive Director Robert Ruffner laid out the organization’s goals in its main areas of activity — education, research, restoration and its evolving roles of collaboration and leadership: To increase the community’s awareness and knowledge about water and the environment; establish and maintain comprehensive research programs to provide quality data; work to restore and repair conditions that threaten the long-term health of the watersheds; lead collaborative efforts to address challenges and create opportunities to benefit the watersheds; and work to ensure the long-term viability of the organization and programs.
About six years ago the Watershed Forum widened its scope to encompass the entire Kenai Peninsula. The size of the organization, its budget and the amount of work it does have grown along with its scope.
The Kenai River Festival, this year scheduled for June 10 to 12 at Soldotna Creek Park, now draws about 6,000 people on a sunny weekend. The educational program is active in schools across the central peninsula and Homer, and this year is adding weeklong summer camp sessions for ages 6 to 12 at Soldotna Creek Park.
In restoration, the culvert remediation program has been a main priority in recent years, ensuring that fish passage to and from spawning grounds isn’t blocked by crushed, stuffed, inappropriately sized or hanging culverts. Invasive species, including stream-choking reed canary grass, is a continuing battle. A new focus this year is restoring a section of the Anchor River, which jumped its banks during flooding in 2002 and spread into an adjacent gravel pit.
With restoration, the challenge hasn’t been finding projects to do, it’s deciding where to best spend time and resources, Ruffner said. Continue reading