Story last updated at 4:55 p.m. Thursday, March 11, 2004

Cook Inlet Keeper Water Quality Laboratory up and running

Testing the waters

by Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
Lindsay Winkler, watershed coordinator for the Homer Soil and Conservation District, demonstrates a turbidity test at a training session last month at Cook Inlet Keeper.  
From upper Cook Inlet to Kachemak Bay, 625 volunteers have taken 4,000 observations at 240 sites over the past seven years as part of the Cook Inlet-wide Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Program.

Last month, volunteer coordinators from some of the nine groups in the partnership came to Homer for two days of training.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation this year cut funding for volunteer water-quality monitoring, choosing instead to use federal money to develop a strategy for water-quality monitoring programs. The loss of funding has forced Cook Inlet Keeper and other organizations to cut staff hours, reduce pay and come up with other sources of funding, said Joel Cooper, research coordinator.

Still, Keeper and other groups remain committed to monitoring water quality and salmon habitat, he said.

"If you're looking for a cost-effective way to follow state and federal cost-cutting mandates, citizen monitoring is the way to do it," said Lindsay Winkler, watershed coordinator for the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

CEMP partners include the Homer, Palmer, Upper Susitna and Wasilla Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Anchorage Waterways Council, the University of Alaska Anchorage Environment and Natural Resource Institute, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Cook Inlet Keeper. CEMP also advises the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society.

For the workshop, coordinators were recertified to train volunteers in their local programs. They practiced how to train volunteers in testing water samples, and critiqued each other's teaching methods. Most important, said Cooper, the coordinators ran quality assurance and quality control tests on control samples. Cooper said the results were all within established Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

"We boast that we're the most comprehensive monitoring program in Alaska," Winkler said.

Water samples are evaluated for color, temperature, turbidity, conductivity and dissolved oxygen and screened for bacteria, nitrates, phosphates and micro invertebrates, Cooper said. Samples taken from estuaries are also tested for salinity. Some groups also test for hydrocarbons and baseline metals.

Cooper said DEC Commissioner Ernesta Ballard defended the department's funding cuts earlier this month at CEMP's annual conference in Anchorage. He noted that DEC uses the CEMP data to determine priority water bodies.

"How are you going to know a water body is impaired if you don't monitor it?" Cooper asked.

However, Ballard also recognized the value of citizen-based data, Winkler said the commissioner told them. She said it was good to hear that all the way from the top.

"It's completely transparent that our data are valid," Winkler said.

Cooper said the workshop also gave the coordinators a chance to work in Keeper's new Community-based Water Quality Laboratory, funded by a $100,000 grant from the state's Coastal Impact Assistance Program. The lab isn't certified or set up to do private water quality testing.

"We're going to look into that further," Cooper said.

Keeper is looking at partnerships with other labs in the area, he said, such as those run by the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve or the Kasitsna Bay lab run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and trying to avoid duplication of services. He's talked with the city of Homer about doing testing for the city treatment plant, too.

As watershed coordinator, Winkler said part of her job involves educating the public about the science done in her department. She said the training helped her bring together those two worlds.

"It was a way for me to get more involved in the scientific aspects," Winkler said.

Cooper said Cook Inlet Keeper will hold an open house for its laboratory in May and solicit ideas from the public.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at