Unalaska Locals Hope Proposed Watershed Fixes Are First of Many

Murky water in Unalaska Lake is evidence of a runoff problem that may be harming salmon. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
Murky water in Unalaska Lake is evidence of a runoff problem that may be harming salmon. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Unalaska Lake and the Iliuliuk River run through the heart of Unalaska. The watershed used to be habitat for thousands of salmon. But after decades of development and little consideration for containing runoff, that fish population seems to be on the decline.

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On Tuesday, after months of public debate, city council is voting ontaking its first look at a million dollars of mitigation projects. Residents hope it’s the first step down a path to recovery.

Qawalangin Tribe president Tom Robinson is standing in the middle of one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in Unalaska. The valley’s lined with duplexes and family homes overlooking a winding creek. But it’s not all picturesque:

Tom Robinson: You can see – we are at the base of the Overland Road. And you can see an attempt to capture some of the sediment problems from the quarry…

Robinson’s pointing at a pool of murky runoff, which sits below a gravel road leading up to a privately owned rock quarry. He and other locals think this area’s a main source of the silt, which has been clogging up the Unalaska Lake watershed.

“The amount of gravel that’s put on the road … you know, I don’t think anyone really thought that the runoff would be a big problem,” Robinson says. “Well, folks, it is. And it’s killing our lake.”

For the past few months, the Anchorage-based consulting firm PND Engineers has been running tests on the lake and the river. And they’ve asked residents like Robinson what they think would be the best way to clean them up and help restore the salmon runs.

Robinson says there’s been a lot of public participation in that process:

“By the demise of our lake, this is probably the first time that, I think, you saw that many entities in one room, taking on a topic,” he says.

PND is working with a million-dollar grant, left over from the defunct Coastal Zone Management program. At this week’s city council meeting, they’ll present their ideas for using that money to improve the watershed. (Click to see the draft plans for the lakeand the river.) 

One suggestion: better training for roads crews on how to reduce runoff while they’re out plowing snow. They also recommend new culverts, ditches and sediment traps on the gravel roads that run through the watershed.

Ideally, they say the city should start paving those streets. City Engineer Robert Lund is a big supporter — but he says it’s a major undertaking.

“It really, really rains here a lot, so that’s one of the things you’re kind of fighting, is just the weather and the topography. It’s very steep and all that,” Lund says. “So those are expensive issues — that’s why paving’s, I think, a good one, because it really takes the source.”

Lund says that controlling runoff wasn’t always a priority for the city. But now, he hopes they’ll draw new lessons from the research that’s been done on the local watershed.

“There’s better practices that we could be doing,” Lund says. “And there’s not really an excuse not to take care of our environment to the extent that’s practical, or at least conserve it … while there’s still fish in it.”

The salmon, he says, are the best indicator of whether the watershed is healthy. And it’s widely believed that the population is a fraction of what it used to be.

Right now, the most reliable source of data to back that up is the high school hatchery class. They’re the only ones conducting regular checks on the salmon and their habitat.

On a recent morning, students were out at the river measuring the water level, and checking how clear it was.

Ashley RobinsonCan you feel it, though?
Cole McCracken: 
It’s right here.
Ashley: So… yeah.
Cole: But that seems pretty low. Well, normally, we do it from right on the end of the side. It’s the deeper area…

Senior Cole McCracken’s been speaking up at public meetings about the watershed. He’s grown up fishing salmon here, and he says he’s seen the river change:

“The sediment concentration has increased over the past few years, for sure – or, more than that,” he says. “Probably over the past, like, couple of decades.”

Eventually, McCracken’s class may not be the only ones keeping tabs on the river. The engineers who’ve been helping the city wade through options for their grant are recommending two fish weirs to collect hard data on the size of the runs. That could help shed light on what’s causing them to drop off.

Steven Gregory is the teacher in charge of the hatchery class. He’s a big advocate of the weirs — but he says he hopes the city — and residents — will go further in tackling runoff.

“There has been a perception that something needs to be done, and now, I think, people believe that there actually are some ways to make an improvement,” Gregory says. “So I’m excited about that, but again, it’s going to take a sustained effort.”

And, probably more funding than the million dollars the city has at its disposal right now. That’s why Robinson and the Qawalangin Tribe have pledged to track down additional grants for clean-up.

And after a petition from dozens of residents, the city of Unalaska is looking into a special historic designation for the watershed. That could pave the way for more funding and protection in the future.

CLARIFICATION: After the PND presentation and a chance for public input at Tuesday night’s meeting, city council will decide how to move forward. City manager Chris Hladick expects they’ll ask staff to compile a final plan on what projects the city can afford and finish on time — the grant money has to be used by June 2016.

Hladick says council will vote on a final watershed plan at their Feb. 10 meeting.