Alaska’s coastline is renowned for its pristine nature, the Exxon Valdez notwithstanding. So it was with some incongruity that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released its most recent beach water quality index, rating Alaska as 29th out of 30 states. The details, however, indicate things are probably not so grim.
The NRDC released its 24th Annual “Testing the Waters” report, which grades the beach water quality of the individual states during the previous year. The overall numbers for 2013 were worse in part because the NRDC utilized the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new and more stringent Beach Action Value (BAV) standard. Under that standard, 10 percent of nationwide samples failed. In Alaska, the percentage of failure was 24, a figure which drew the attention of CNN.
However, of the 25 beaches in the NRDC’s Alaska Summary, only seven reported any samples at all. Of those seven, five beaches, from the Haines and Juneau areas, took fewer than 12 samples and were statistically insignificant. High numbers at Auke Recreation Area and Lena Cove in Juneau reflect a one day spike that is unexplained.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for Alaska’s beach water quality program. Following the federal Beach Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, which established grants for state water monitoring, Alaska DEC sent out a Recreational Beach Survey to identify recreational-use beaches in the state. So far, the state has a list of 204. Of those, “46 are considered to be of higher risk for water quality concerns.”
The state is primarily concerned with levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, both associated with human and animal waste and capable of causing illness and infection.
According to the 2010 “Testing the Waters” report,
When selecting which beaches to monitor, factors such as proximity to an established road system and distance from a laboratory are considered, along with the types of recreational activities that occur, the levels of use, and the types of nearby pollution sources. If a beach is placed under advisory, monitoring occurs daily until standards are met.
“If a monitored beach meets water quality standards for two consecutive years, it typically becomes ineligible for continued inclusion in the monitoring program,” according to the 2012 report.
Samples around the state are taken uniformly, 12 inches below the surface in water three feet deep, in accordance with EPA recommendations. The state encourages them to be taken during the summer when recreational use is highest.
While the state administers the monitoring program, begun in 2006, it contracts the actual sampling to local agencies and non-profits. Communities that participate have the authority to post advisories on water quality, which the state recommends over closures.
One example of this local control was at Kanakanak Beach near Dillingham. In 2009, two beluga whale carcasses washed up on the beach. The only bacteria levels that exceeded state and EPA triggers were during that time, but a warning sign about the whales had already been placed at Kanakanak.
One area in Alaska of continued concern is the mouth of the Kenai River. North and South Kenai Beaches have had bacterial exceedances since they were first sampled significantly in 2010. South Kenai Beach has consistently had levels by far the higher of the two.
With the exception of 2012, the situation in Kenai seems to be getting worse. Under the new BAV standard, 59 percent of samples at South Kenai Beach exceeded safe bacteria levels in 2013. 19 percent of samples at North Kenai Beach exceeded safe levels.
The source of high bacteria levels seems to be the personal use dipnet fishery, which occurs in the middle of the water sampling season. In its 2012 report, the Kenai Watershed Forum noted that “While adequate sanitary facilities, including portable toilets and fish waste disposal containers, were available on both the north and south beaches for dipnet fishers to use, improper waste disposal remains an issue each year and can contribute to high levels of fecal coliform and enterococci.” Improper disposal of fish waste has also led to a concentration of birds, mostly gulls, contributing to the preponderance of bacteria.
The Kenai dipnet fishery opens on July 10.
Both the DEC and the city of Kenai recognize the problem. DEC issued a press release in 2011 warning of high levels of enterococci and fecal coliform at South Kenai Beach.
In 2013, the Kenai City Council allocated funds for trash containers at both beaches, two more temporary enforcement officers, and a tractor to push fish waste to the tideline. However, the city reduced the fine for improper fish disposal.
Kenai was the only location in the state to receive grant money for beach water monitoring in 2014, totaling $85,000. This is a reduction from the approximately $150,000 the state received in 2008, 2009, and 2011.
Alaska’s rank in beach water quality, artificially downgraded by a couple locations, is a blemish on the state’s image of unspoiled wilderness. Since the popularity of dipnetting on the Kenai is unlikely to decrease, if the state wishes to correct the numbers, sampling at more locations will be necessary to dilute the statistics. This, of course, would require additional funding. There is always the possibility that more testing might turn up more problem beaches, though that should not concern the state if the goal is truly to protect the public from illness.