Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Muddy waters: Slikok project mired — Choice to drill garners question of water safety

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Plan B for getting a water pipe across Slikok Creek is making lemonade from lemons that shouldn’t have grown in the first place, according to Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

A project to extend city of Soldotna water service along Kalifornsky Beach Road and out to the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College has been on hold since early September, when the first attempt to get the pipe past Slikok Creek ended up threatening the health of the creek.

The project originally called for doing a 100-yard underground bore and running the pipe under the creek, which is a productive spawning ground for salmon and trout. The boring process involves injecting mud into the hole to help move the pipe along. But something went awry and the mud started surfacing in the creek.

The mud was water-based and not a pollutant in a chemical sense, but it raised the turbidity level in the creek, said Rick Wood, head of the water department for the city of Soldotna.

Turbidity refers to the amount of particles, such as mud and silt, in water. If there’s enough of it, it can settle in gravel among salmon eggs and suffocate them, or ruin otherwise healthy spawning habitat. When it’s suspended in water it can clog up fishes’ gills so they can’t get enough oxygen, and it can eventually make it so juvenile fish can’t see to eat.

Drilling was stopped as soon as the mud was discovered in the creek.

“We didn’t want to have anything like that with our name on it.” Wood said.

The problem was caught early and the amount the turbidity level was raised wasn’t any more significant than a natural event, like a beaver dam breaking, Ruffner said. The Kenai Watershed Forum and Fish and Game were notified immediately and monitored the creek to ensure no significant damage was done.

“It got caught right away and the contractor’s a pretty first-class guy,” Ruffner said. “They did exactly what should have been done.”

But he questions why it was done in the first place.

“What I don’t know is how we got to this point, that would be really nice to know, because now that we’ve got a pipeline laid in both directions, with a gap where the creek is, it’s the wrong time to really look for a good solution,” Ruffner said. “So this is really going to be one of those cases of, ‘Let’s make some lemonade out of the lemons we’ve got there.’”

Wood said underground boring is a fairly new procedure in Alaska. It was thought to be safe for the creek, he said.

“Where they’re doing it you do mostly short runs. We were trying to do six to seven hundred feet,” Wood said. “We were led on by one of the contractors that was doing the drilling before we even put it out to bid, he thought it wouldn’t be a bit of a problem. The general contractor and city of Soldotna agreed. But, hey, enough is enough. We don’t want to risk any environmental damage.”

Now the plan is to wait until February or March when the water level in the creek is lowest, divert the creek, dig a trench, lay the pipe, backfill the trench and return the creek to its natural route. The city expects to hear whether it will get the permits required for the project in January, Wood said.

It’s a fine plan, as far as it goes, Ruffner said.

“There are always things that can go wrong, but doing it in the dead of winter when water levels are as low as they can get and working when the ground is frozen minimizes risks. They’re doing everything they can to make sure the lemonade is as sweet as possible,” Ruffner said.

Sweetening the deal even more is an opportunity to actually help the creek. There’s a section of it about 100 feet away from the drilling location that was damaged in the past when it was used as an ATV corridor, Ruffner said. The crew could put the pipe through there and repair the damage to the creek when they redivert it.

“So there’s the lemonade part of the story,” he said.

The sourness comes from Ruffner’s contention that pipes shouldn’t be run under creeks in the first place.

“At some point they’re going to fail and have to be tore up. At some point you’re going to have to go in there and dig these things out. So there’s no way to avoid impacts,” Ruffner said.

A better alternative would be to run the pipe along College Road, about a half-mile away, and cross the creek at the bridge, Ruffner said. He thought that was the plan, since there was a water main already put in place across the creek when College Road was torn up last year so the culvert Slikok Creek passes through underneath the road could be replaced.

Wood said water and sewer lines were installed at the creek crossing when the culvert was replaced. Since the road was already being dug up for the culvert, the idea was to install the water and sewer lines in case a bridge is ever built across the Kenai River off Poppy Lane, Wood said. The city considered using the water line for this project, but it wasn’t feasible because that route wouldn’t maintain the pressure required for firefighting purposes, he said.

Wood said there has to be a certain level of water flow maintained for fire hydrants. Using the water main at the culvert would add 5,000 feet of pipe to the project, which would result in lower water pressure and volume, he said.

“It wouldn’t serve a purpose. They’d (KPC) have to have another water source even if we did go along the College Road,” Wood said.

It also would be more expensive. With engineering and construction costs, pipe in this project costs $130 a lineal foot, Wood said.

“Times 5,000, it starts adding up,” he said.

At $265,000, the underground bore already was more expensive than if they’d diverted the creek in the first place, Wood said. But now the college, which is footing the bill for the project, has to pay for the failed bore and the creek trench project.

“They’re paying for all of it to get water from K-Beach to the college. We’re going to do it like we would for the city, we’re going to look for the cheapest route to do it for them,” Wood said.

Ruffner said money shouldn’t trump the importance of minimizing impacts to the creek.
“If it costs more, then whoever is paying for it just needs to raise more money to do that,” he said.

Better yet, everyone involved should learn a lesson from this scenario and avoid plans to lay pipes under sensitive creeks.

“I would be happy with the proposed solution if we learned a lesson and changed our behavior in the future,” Ruffner said. “It’s a palatable solution, for sure.”

“When we heard directional drilling under the creek we didn’t think much about it. In the future, we probably learned our lesson, that we ought to think about those things, and if there’s an alternative route, take it. Even better than that would be a policy saying, ‘These are the corridors that you can provide utilities through.”

Wood said the original plan was to have pipe laid by Oct. 15. Now the project could take until June.

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