Fishing Access and Habitat Restoration are Wrecked

February 08 , 2007
Anchorage Daily News

SOLDOTNA -- Anglers will find fewer places to fish and young salmon will find fewer places to hide here this year because of a roiling crush of ice and water that scoured the Kenai River's banks two weeks ago.
Soldotna Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael photographs twisted shoreline protection walkways, Feb, 7, 2007. Recent Kenai River flooding damaged millions of dollars' worth of riverbank protection structures and salmon-habitat enhancements.

Much of the millions of dollars' worth of habitat- restoration and river-access projects that the city, the state and private landowners have pumped into the area since the mid-1990s washed down the river with the flood.

In the short term it means some riverbanks will be closed to keep boots from tromping them into eroded bogs. In the long term, it could mean millions more spent to build a better system. And state biologists say a generation or more of salmon fry and smolt will be easier pickings for birds and fish because they lack shade and shelter among tree limbs and roots.

"Soldotna Creek is devastated," state fisheries biologist George Pappas said of the creek just upstream from the town's Sterling Highway bridge. "It's just flattened."

That means elevated walkways that both provided access to the water and funneled the masses of anglers away from protected riverbanks are either gone or twisted, especially in the park's upper reaches. Also gone is the long garden of tree "root wads" that had been bored perpendicularly into the banks to hold dirt in place and cast 6-foot wheels of roots into the water as shelter for smolt. Many of the trunks are still in the mud, but the ice sheared off most of the roots.

What will be the effect on young fish? "It's hard to say, but it's not good," Pappas said.

The immediate effect to anglers will be "closed" signs in some areas that usually are open when the July sockeye rush is on, said Andrew Carmichael, Soldotna's director of parks and recreation. He inspected the destruction at Soldotna Creek Park on Wednesday and found some of the older walkways and grated staircases gone altogether.

Fortunately, he said while looking downstream toward the bridge, the hottest fishing zone's walkways seemed to survive, though a half-dozen staircases in that stretch were twisted. So the part of Soldotna Creek Park best known for "shoulder-to-shoulder, cheek-to-cheek" fishing likely can be repaired by July, he said.

In all, though, the city suffered at least $1.5 million in damage to its habitat protection system, and it will declare an emergency in hopes of getting some federal assistance in rebuilding, Carmichael said.

And that's just the city's part. Across the river from Soldotna Creek, stairwells descending from homes end in a glacial jumble where private docks and walkways used to be. For more than 11 years, property owners have bought into riverbank protection with a 50-50 cost share from grants that the state administered. Using $4 million over that time, they have built elevated walks to protect against erosion, planted willows to provide shade and hold dirt, and anchored root wads along the banks, said Dean Hughes, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Many of those property owners likely are in for a shock when they find they won't be eligible for a second grant, Hughes said. The grants, many of which come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are one-time collaborations. The goal is to spread the money to as many participants as possible.

Recent construction on private lands has emphasized removable walkways, Hughes said. Problem is, most were not removed before the flood, which was caused by a glacially dammed lake breaking free into Skilak Lake and through its outlet, piling up the ice that already covered the river.

"There are a good number of (structures) that, honestly, should have been removed," Hughes said. "This kind of event happens so rarely that people got complacent. It's just human nature."

Even where private structures are gone, though, Hughes said landowners are more educated than in the past and likely won't trample their banks into slop.

New construction methods seem to have saved much of the city's bank-work immediately upstream from the Sterling Highway bridge, Carmichael said. Steel pilings anchor the walkways into the bank, and erosion-stopping logs are stacked behind those pilings. The staircases that descend from the walkways to the water fold up in the middle, which wasn't enough to save them from damage in this flood. After reconstruction, they'll fold up from the top, he said.

Although he was impressed with the destruction at Soldotna Creek, Carmichael said, there's no use being mad at a flood. It just means there's work to do, again, and that it might be done better next time.

"For the level of ice in the river, we did pretty well," he said.

His was a sentiment repeated on Soldotna City Hall's marquee on Wednesday: "You can't fight Mother Nature!"

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