By Jenny Neyman
Residents of Cooper Landing 50 years ago knew Cooper Creek as a favored fishing hole, where anglers could land rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, king salmon and the occasional sockeye and chum salmon without having to venture far from home.
Today, Cooper Creek is known for the hydroelectric dam it supports and the fish it doesn’t.
The dam on Cooper Creek and power plant at Cooper Lake were built by Chugach Electric Association in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shortly thereafter, fish stocks began to decrease. Over the years there’s been argument over what caused the demise of the fish, and how substantial the fishery was in the first place.
Longtime Cooper Landing residents aren’t conflicted about it — there were large runs until the dam destroyed them, they say. It’s against this backdrop that Kenai Hydro — a partnership between Homer Electric Association and Wind Energy Alaska — is investigating building four hydro sites in the Trail Lakes drainage near Moose Pass, on Crescent Lake, Grant Lake, Falls Creek and Ptarmigan Lake.
Cooper Landing residents were outspoken with concerns about the projects at an informational meeting Jan. 21 in Cooper Landing, and the Friends of Cooper Landing group filed opposition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission against Kenai Hydro being awarded preliminary permits to study the sites for hydro.
For its part, Kenai Hydro says the environmental impact of the Cooper Creek dam that led to the decimation of fish runs won’t happen with the new projects. Their own studies and designs will seek to avoid damaging fish habitat, and the permitting process the projects will have to go through is meant to ensure due diligence will be taken to mitigate harms.
Residents living near the once productive Cooper Creek aren’t so sure.
Rich watersCooper Landing historian Mona Painter bristles at the suggestion that the existence and demise of fish in Cooper Creek is anything but fact.
“I did interviews with people, they talked about the fish that were in there,” she said.
Painter was hired by the Forest Service to do an extensive study of Cooper Creek, finished in January 1998, including the area’s history stretching back beyond construction of the dam to the mining bonanza sparked by Joseph Cooper’s discovery of gold in the creek in 1884.
Mining use of the creek was extensive in the early years, including three hydraulic plants built from 1907-09, and a dredge mining operation started in 1912. By 1941, World War II slowed mining activity in the area, and Painter found evidence that fish stocks rebounded in the creek.
She compiled studies, stories and written mentions of fish and fishing in the creek and lake for the project. Among the references she compiled were the results of a sport fishery survey from 1955 that found 342 fishermen fished 2,281 days in the creek. In 1956 a memorandum report stated that, “lower Cooper Creek supported an important sport fishery and provided spawning areas for small runs of commercially significant salmon species.” Only minimal fish surveys were done before the dam was built and counts varied widely, but they did document sockeye salmon, kings and the occasional chum salmon in the creek prior to 1959, according to Painter’s research.
She also added her own, firsthand knowledge of the area.
“There is no doubt that rainbow trout fishing was good in Cooper Creek before the dam was built,” Painter wrote. “Newspaper articles attest to that as does Nick Lean, David Rhode, Floyd McElveen, and Bob Williams. Thirty-inch rainbows were not uncommon. King salmon were seen swimming up Cooper Creek. In 1959, my 3-year-old son and I were exploring in the area beyond the campground on the west side of Cooper Creek and saw king salmon in a tiny stream that flowed into Cooper Creek. The creek was so shallow that the upper half of the salmon was out of the water. This was my first sight of a live king salmon and quite memorable.”
McElveen, a missionary, and his family moved into a cabin on the west side of Cooper Creek Campground in 1958. In his book, “The Call of Alaska,” he wrote about the sparkling creek filled with rainbow trout, and one time catching a 29-inch trout with a small hook and salmon egg.
Rhode and Lean told stories of fishing in the creek when they were younger, and Painter has a picture of Lean and his friend Laurel “Swede” Gresham taken in front of the Lean home on the Kenai River with rainbows the two caught in Cooper Creek.
In a videotaped interview with Gary and Chris Titus in 1993, Lean talked about the creek.
“Big chars, big Dollies, Cooper Creek was a good fish stream in those days,” Lean said. “Big rainbows would go up to spawn in the spring. I’ve seen 30-inch rainbows up there like you won’t believe. … It was a good king salmon stream, too. I’d stand there on the bridge as a kid and watch those great big kings swimming up. They were all up and down the creek.”
Poor returnsIn 1957 Chugach was permitted to put in a hydroelectric facility at Cooper Lake. In 1959 a road to the dam site was completed and construction began, according to Painter’s research. A tunnel was dug between the south end of Cooper Lake and Kenai Lake to the east. An earthen dam was built on Cooper Creek, which drains out of the north end of Cooper Lake and winds five miles through forest and gorges to drain into the Kenai River under the Sterling Highway. The dam allowed water to collect in Cooper Lake and be sluiced through the tunnel to a powerhouse sitting on the shore of Kenai Lake, where the water was released. Water to Cooper Creek was cut off in October 1962 and the power plant began operating, to the delight of area residents — at the time.
“Certainly in those days when the dam was built people were really hungry for electricity instead of having their own generator,” Painter said. “I don’t remember anybody even talking about maybe there wouldn’t be fish anymore, and maybe we should do this differently. We wanted electricity.”
Painter said it didn’t take long to realize the dam was bad for fish.
“As soon as they built the dam there weren’t fish. That’s easy. I’ve been to the dam at different occasions and there’s no water that comes from Cooper Creek anymore,” she said.
Water below the dam in Cooper Creek comes from Stetson Creek, which drains into it from the west. But the water in Stetson is colder than the water in Cooper Lake; meaning Cooper Creek became 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit colder, according to Painter’s research. Decreased water flow was also documented at 25 percent of normal.
She also notes several surveys done in 1997 on Cooper Creek, one where minnow traps caught 146 Dollies and one rainbow, another where one adult male king salmon was found three-quarters of a mile upstream from the creek mouth on a day in August, and 26 adult Dollies were tagged on a day in September.
But without having substantiated fish counts from before the dam was built, it’s difficult to estimate the impact the dam and resultant change in creek hydrology had on anadromous fish in Cooper Creek. That was Chugach Electric’s position when the hydro facility was up for relicensing recently.
“There was discussion of the issues surrounding Cooper Creek and old anadromous fish in that creek back then pre the Cooper Lake power plant. There wasn’t any conclusion that I recall as far as how to determine whether there was a fish flow through there or not and how heavy the fish used that area or not,” said Steve Gilbert, with enXco, a renewable energy firm that partnered with Cook Inlet Region Corp. to form Wind Energy Alaska, which is HEA’s partner in Kenai Hydro.
Gilbert is manager of Alaska projects for enXco, and previously worked for Chugach, where he was the manager of the Cooper Lake power plant for several years, he said.
Chugach’s application to relicense the Cooper Lake power plant was approved by FERC in 2008. The relicensing was met with concerns from Cooper Landing residents and fisheries managers over what had happened to Cooper Creek.
Those concerns surfaced again in the meeting with Kenai Hydro and HEA representatives Jan. 21 in Cooper Landing.
Paul McLarnon, a biologist with HDR Alaska, a consultant doing engineering design work and ecological studies for Kenai Hydro, told the audience Kenai Hydro plans to do things differently than the Cooper Lake facility.
“In Cooper Creek, we determined the biggest limiting factor of that creek is temperature,” he said, due to water coming from colder Stetson Creek, rather than Cooper Lake.
In the projects Kenai Hydro is considering, the same water diverted out of lakes and creeks for power would be returned to the creeks above anadromous fish habitat, McLarnon said. And they would study what effect power generation may have on water temperature before the projects are built, he said.
That isn’t enough assurance for everyone.
“I have serious doubts that you’re going to be able to do that, and I don’t know. You’re going to have to convince me and everyone here that you can do that,” said John Thorne, of Cooper Landing, during the meeting
Painter said she isn’t against hydro per se, but is concerned about the effects it can have, especially due to the lessons of Cooper Creek.
“It’s not that I’m biased, or because I don’t know the electric business. I guess if there was a low-impact way that wouldn’t hurt the recreation or the fishery and so forth I guess I wouldn’t have anything against it. I mean, we all need electric power. It’s just that, it’s interesting,” she said.
“I know there were fish in Cooper Creek, and I hope there will be fish in Crescent Creek.”