Story last updated at 6:43 p.m. Thursday, December 26, 2002

Diesel fumes detected at Woodard Creek Water-monitoring program turns up possible hazard
By Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo courtesy of Joel Cooper, Cook Inlet Keeper
Ric Ernst, a volunteer monitoring coordinator with the Upper Susitna Soil and Water Conservation District, tests water phosphorous levels during the annual quality assurance evaluation for the Citizenspi Environmental Monitoring Program. The evaluation session was held at the Cook Inlet Keeper on Dec. 12 and 13.  
While working with a local training program earlier this month, coordinators for a volunteer water-quality monitoring program discovered a possible diesel spill at a Woodard Creek site.

The Cook Inlet Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) is an Environmental Protection Agency-approved volunteer-based water-monitoring program that incorporates the efforts of partner organizations to coordinate the effort.

On Dec. 12 and 13, Dan Bogan, one of the program's quality-assurance officers and a research biologist with the University of Alaska's Environment and Natural Resource Institute, took the group of coordinators out to perform a biological assessment at Woodard Creek near where it passes the Pratt Museum.

Dale Banks, a volunteer coordinator with the Cook Inlet Keeper who was participating in the evaluation, said the smell of diesel was strong along the creek and grew stronger when the soil along the bank was disturbed by the group's foot traffic. The source of the diesel was not apparent.

The odor was noted on the site's data sheet, as are all significant observations during a typical site-monitoring visit.

Cook Inlet Keeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson was informed of the apparent contamination. In turn, Shavelson has notified the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation of the apparent contamination's location.

Gary Folley, an environmental specialist with DEC in Kenai, said he hoped to be able to assess the situation some time after the holidays, though he said that it didn't sound like a major spill of any kind.

"When there's a significant spill, there's usually a constant sheen in the creek," Folley said. "But we'll definitely get down to check it out."

Joel Cooper, a research coordinator with the Keeper and a quality-assurance officer with the citizen's monitoring program, raised the concern that contamination of the area's smaller creeks is often overlooked because they don't support salmon.

"The non-fish streams are important to consider," Cooper said. "People use these smaller steams as water sources -- to water gardens and for drinking."

Shavelson said the finding of diesel fumes was not too surprising with all the recent flooding in the Homer area.

Household fuel tanks could have easily been knocked around during the deluge, he said.

"More than anything, finding diesel on Woodard Creek underscores the value of the monitoring program," Shavelson said.

CEMP keeps tabs on the overall health of the Cook Inlet watershed through intensive volunteer-driven monitoring of sites throughout the Cook Inlet watershed.

This effort is made possible through the partnership of a variety of water-quality advocacy groups, including Cook Inlet Keeper, Homer Soil and Water Conser-vation District, UAA's Environment and Natural Resource Center, Kenai Watershed Forum, Anchorage Waterways Council, Wasilla Soil and Water District and the Upper Susitna Soil and Water District.

Since the program first got off the ground in 1996, nearly 500 citizens have been trained and have performed water-quality monitoring and biological monitoring and assessment at 198 sites around the Cook Inlet basin.

Cooper said there are 115 active sites being monitored by more than 125 citizen volunteers.

Their observations have been entered into around 3,000 data sheets, and their time amounts to around $500,000 worth of volunteer hours.

The evaluations that the Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Program held recertify the regional coordinators -- more than a half dozen of the regional partners are actively involved in monitoring the watershed -- in the teaching techniques that allow them to bring this army of volunteers into the program.

"The (evaluations) allow us to make sure the (volunteer) trainings have consistency," Banks said. "It ensures that the data we collect are defensible."

Water-quality assessments require volunteers to test for factors such as turbidity or clarity, temperature and pH. In the bio-monitoring, volunteers collect samples of aquatic insects and make observations on the level and nature of any disturbance that might be present along the stream banks.

Banks said the Kachemak Bay region and lower Cook Inlet have 40 volunteers working on 40 different sites.

Anybody wishing to get involved with the monitoring program is invited to contact Dale Banks at Cook Inlet Keeper (235-4068 ext. 23).

An annual report of the data collected by Kachemak Bay environmental monitoring volunteers is available on the Web at www.inletkeeper.org.

Cook Inlet Keeper's more stringent, EPA-approved water-quality assessment project also has a report online. It details four years of data compiled by stream ecologist Sue Mauger from sites on the lower peninsula salmon streams -- the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers, and Deep and Stariski creeks.

As for CEMP, Cooper said he hopes the Cook Inlet program is just the first step in a statewide system of water-monitoring programs.

"We're hoping that (our program) can be replicated throughout the state on a basin-by-basin basis," he said. "What CEMP does is something that resonates with all Alaskans regardless of their political, social or economic background -- that our publicly owned water resources are important to the people of our community.

"With people monitoring their own water resources, it gets friends and neighbors solving their own pollution problems."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer news.com.

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