Study: Chilkoot Watershed a diverse habitat
A recently completed comprehensive fish study of the Chilkoot watershed found a diverse and healthy habitat for several species of fish, including areas of a now underwater roadbed that is being suggested for reconstruction to develop the Connelly Lake hydro project.
The Takshanuk Watershed Council decided a few years ago that the Chilkoot watershed from the lake north was understudied and would make an ideal area to examine further.
“We looked at the existing state of knowledge about Chilkoot and realized it was not a complete picture at all,” said Tim Shields, executive director of TWC at the time.
Shields said the growing interest in the Connelly Lake hydro project also gave the council reason to want to expand the knowledge of the watershed.
The project proposed by Alaska Power and Telephone would provide more power to Haines and Skagway by developing a hydroelectric power plant and rock-fill dam about four miles upstream of Chilkoot Lake. AP&T has filed for a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which allows the utility to continue studying environmental and engineering issues surrounding the proposed project.
Shields said TWC selected areas of the watershed to study that hadn’t been mapped or were missing details. Researchers spent from 2008 to 2011 conducting the study, with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A field crew visited the watershed areas and used visual observation, dip-nets and gee-style minnow traps to identify and count fish species. Visual observations of migrating, spawning and dead adult salmon were recorded with GPS coordinates, dates and times. They also logged GPS points and added depth and detail to the physical locations and geology of streams and offshoots of the river. Shields said researchers found several streams and channels that hadn’t been catalogued before.
Through the study, it was determined that the upper extent of fish habitat was nine miles upriver of the north end of Chilkoot Lake. In the lower streams flowing into the lake, researchers observed sockeye, coho and chum spawning. Within the first mile of the Chilkoot River and its tributaries above the lake, spawning chum, pink, coho and sockeye were observed. The wetlands area produces “some of the most prolific rearing habitat for juvenile coho,” the study said. And sockeye and coho were observed spawning in the river and its tributaries as far up as eight miles upstream from the lake.
“Over the three years of observation in the Chilkoot Valley, it is obvious that it is a very dynamic system full of wildlife,” the study states. “The river and side streams would change course between years, and beavers would make wetlands and ponds where they did not exist the year before. TWC’s trapping confirmed that the wetlands and ponds are high value salmon habitat. The limited human access has allowed the cycles of nature to reestablish themselves and adjust to prior human impacts.”
Researchers were also able to offer a comprehensive update on the condition of the road. The Chilkoot Road was first constructed in 1965 from the north end of the lake to three homesteads located in the upper Chilkoot Valley. In 1990, the road was improved with culverts and bridges so it could support logging activity. The road has not since been maintained.
Shields and the researcher’s said in their report that it wasn’t surprising to find the road in poor condition. But of 40 stream crossings observed, only 11 appeared still intact. And they found two significant areas where the old roadbed that cuts through wetland for more than 100 meters, is now underwater and fish have established habitats.
Eric Holle with Lynn Canal Conservation views the study as just one of several cases that point to the effects any development in the watershed would have in the area, as well as evidence of the diversity of the habitat.
“Clearly the area produces in many more places than previously known,” said Holle.
He said the road through the area was never meant to be a permanent transportation corridor.
“All it was before was a logging road and logging roads are pretty temporary and ephemeral,” he said. “The fact that the road that goes back there is in very bad shape and nearly non-existent makes me think that any road construction would be detrimental to fish production due to sedimentation and turbidity that it would cause.”
AP&T manager Danny Gonce said he has seen the study, but that it is only one of many being conducted to understand the effects a hydro-project would have on the area. But in an open letter in November to local residents about the project Gonce wrote, “Prevention of erosion and sediment control during construction will be a primary focus of ourselves and the regulatory agencies. We will develop and implement an Erosion and Sediment Control Plan as part of the licensing process and that document will specify in detail the best management practices that we will use to prevent erosion and control sedimentation.”
But in the same letter, Gonce said the condition of the road is a noted concern.
“We acknowledge that our understanding of the condition of the road was flawed, and that more work will be required to rehabilitate it than we indicated in the preliminary permit application. However, we believe the road can be rebuilt to a higher standard that may actually help the Chilkoot salmon runs recover. It is this type of mitigation effort that we hope to achieve with a collaborative licensing process.”
The goal of researching the watershed, Shields said, was to gather as much information now to give to AP&T to use in its cost-benefit analysis of a Connelly Lake hydro project.
“The real goal was to take this expertise and funding and find as much preliminary data to make this an informed discussion as opposed to conflicting discussion about what is in there,” he said. “When you gather information, it’s a lot less controversial.”