Causes for the Matanuska Valley’s poor salmon runs – usually blamed on Cook Inlet commercial harvesters – are getting another look.
New evidence links the diminishing runs to habitat degradation caused by rapid development within the Matanuska Susitna Borough.
There were a dozen or so new ordinances heard at a recent Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly meeting, and two of them dealt with salmon habitat improvement.
The Borough recently put more money for salmon management studies on its legislative wish list, but Larry Engle, who is on the Borough’s fish and wildlife commission, told the Assembly that the problem begins at home.
“I think we have identified that we have a serious problem,” Engle said. “Over the years of culvert installations we need to do something different.”
“Absolutely hundreds of miles of habitat are not used fully, or at all, because of these barriers.”
He said that 668 culverts in the Borough had been evaluated by state Fish and Game and almost three quarters of them have been deemed unsatisfactory in relation to fish passage.
Engle spoke in support of an ordinance regulating the size and condition of culverts used in new construction.
Frankie Barker, an environmental planner with the Borough, said that development in the Valley over the past few years has caused blockage in some salmon streams.
“As our community is growing we wanna make sure we’re not creating new to fish,” Barker said. “So that’s the essential piece about this ordinance it seems like at this point they shouldn’t actually be happening, but unfortunately, there is a disconnect between the [Department of] Fish and Game permitting process and our Borough road process, and our road process is different from the state permitting process.”
“So, this is an effort to try to make sure that you do not, on Borough roads, install culverts that are barriers to fish.”
Engle said a new report, released earlier this year, blames salmon habitat loss on the Borough’s failure to regulate and enforce fish friendly construction practices.
The document, sponsored by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association or UCIDA, is titled “A Watershed Perspectives on Salmon Production In the Mat-Su Basin.”
Engle said the report has some valid points.
“Using modern-day, if you will, culvert installation standards will certainly improve fish passage, which is one of the issues that’s concerned many people here, but that’s only one of the benefits that when you have flood events like we experienced very serious flood events, something that occurs about every 100 years here last fall,” Engle said. “Culverts that are put in appropriately with modern standards don’t wash out the roads and they don’t back up like dams and flood the adjacent property.”
“So, there are significant benefits to appropriately installed culverts, not just for fish benefit, but for residents of the borough.”
Engle says in defense of the Borough, that the Borough has replaced about 80 culverts so far, at a cost of $6 million.
“The Borough not only passed an ordinance to require the very best culvert installations that we know of, but they’re also in the process of – they’ve replaced something like 80 culverts that were not installed properly; some of them may be 50-years-old or older and they didn’t have standards and they were put in, generally they were too small of a diameter or at the wrong slope that cause all kinds of problems, and they’ve spent a lot of money in terms of correcting these,” Engle said.
Engle says, although there are distinct viewpoints as to why the Mat-Su salmon runs are poor in recent years, it is appropriate that the Borough make corrections where necessary.