By Joseph Robertia
Compared to the much larger Kenai River, its banks teeming with hopeful fishermen during the summer months, little Soldotna Creek doesn’t get near the annual attention from tourists, but it is an important stream to the year-round “residents” of the peninsula.
Not only do bears — brown and black — drink and feed from the stream, as well as the occasional coyote, but Soldotna Creek also is home to several species of anadromous fish, including chinook, sockeye, silver and pink salmon, and trout species, including Dolly Varden, rainbow and steelhead.
These fish rely not only on the 8.6 miles of Soldotna Creek itself, but also the eight major lakes that feed into the creek, which is why an old culvert less than a half mile from the stream’s confluence with the Kenai was removed recently.
“The significance of this project is there were miles of fish habitat out there that fish couldn’t get to because it was previously inaccessible to them,” said Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, which oversaw the project.
The culvert was part of Mullen Drive, an old road primarily only used by area residents, under a bridge on private property behind the now-demolished building at the “Y” in Soldotna that housed River City Books and other shops, where construction is currently underway on a pharmacy. It was due to this construction that the Watershed Forum decided on replacing the culvert as part of ongoing fish passage projects around the peninsula.
“Around 10 years ago we inventoried all streams crossing under roads as part of our culvert assessment,” Ruffner said.
The Watershed Forum wanted to focus on keeping the connections open between salmon nursery areas and Cook Inlet, rather than duplicating efforts of other environmentally minded organizations in the area that focus on bank restoration and protection projects, such as when constructing access to waterways.
“We believed it was important to provide the most amount of restored habitat per dollar spent, and so from a cost-benefit ratio, you get much more bang for your buck replacing these old culverts versus just restoring 100 feet of bank,” Ruffner said.
Since the first culvert was replaced on Silver Salmon Creek in Ninilchik in 2003, over the past decade the Watershed Forum has replaced nearly 60 others it identified during its initial assessment. Projects have been across the map of the western peninsula, from Homer to Hope, with several in Anchor Point, in the Sterling area and Cooper Landing, and a few on the eastern peninsula, including Moose Pass and Seward.
“We’re getting close to having them all done,” Ruffner said. “We’ve only got about a dozen left to do and some of those are on the (state-maintained) Sterling Highway, but most of them along borough roads have been done.”
The Soldotna Creek project was made possible through a $54,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant, and work was completed by Peninsula Construction. The new, more open area for water passage will alleviate many of the problems created by the old culvert, according to Ruffner.
“We removed the fill on both sides to open the flood plain up from 12 feet to 50 feet. This will give the water a place to go when it floods, rather than channeling it through a narrow culvert. This will, in turn, allow for more efficient transport of water downstream and fish passage upstream,” he said.
The high velocity of water forced through a narrow culvert also could cut the banks, making steep edges where little plant life could take hold. Whereas the wider, more even grade to the new flood plain should be more beneficial to wildlife, according to Ruffner.
“There will still be a lot of revegetation along the edges,” he said.
The old road going over the creek has been reclassified to only allow pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The new wooden bridge is much narrower than the old pathway, which Marge Mullen, the landowner who homesteaded the area, said had been in place 1963. The other side she donated years ago to the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to serve in perpetuity as a natural wildlife corridor.
“It was the first bridge built across our original 102-acre homestead,” she said. “We had built three log cabins on the other side of the creek that were rentals. This was before power, so I had to go over every day to start a generator, and we had a chicken house with 800 laying hens that I needed to get to daily.”
Mullen said that while there was a lot of history and memories attached to the old bridge, she is pleased with the final product of the new project.
“The new footbridge is beautiful,” she said.
However, with construction in the area still ongoing, and part of the land privately owned, Marge’s daughter, Peggy, has asked that people refrain from visiting the new bridge for safety reasons.
To learn more about the Soldotna Creek project, or others conducted or planned by Watershed Forum, visit http://www.kenaiwatershed.org.