Voices of the Peninsula: The riparian missing link

  • By Stan Welles
  • Sunday, July 5, 2015 3:20pm
  • Opinion

The missing link in the riparian buffer argument is ‘time’, the dynamic variable ‘time’.

Other than not over fishing, three essential principles of fish propagation are:

Erosion — is essential for fish propagation.

Erosion impingement — provides nutrients directly and indirectly for fish.

Deposition from erosion — The ever changing, variable density gravel beds provided by continuing erosion provide the necessary range of gravel sizes to accommodate all sizes of salmon spawning, to wit:

I like these observations by Mr. David R. Montgomery, author of “King of Fish, the Thousand-Year Run of Salmon”; “The spawning dance begins as the female prepares a nest in the gravel. She lies on her side and thrashes her tail, hydraulically digging a pit roughly two feet by two feet in the streambed. She then lays her eggs into the hole, where an eager male fertilizes them. To cover the fertilized eggs the female digs another pit just upstream. Disturbed gravel rises into the water and settles back down onto the excavated nest, burying her fertilized eggs. Once spawning is done, the exhausted fish die.

“The fertilized eggs develop gradually in the streambed and emerge from the gravel several months later as small fish called fry.”

Now, let’s think about this hole in the gravel. Different conditions are needed for each size of fish whether referring to different species of salmon or within the large ranges of sizes of the same species.

Mr. Montgomery shares; “It is essential for the fish egg survival that the eggs be buried below the scour layer of the streambed. The depth to which salmon bury their eggs also depends on the size of the fish. Big fish dig deep nests. Small fish dig shallow nests. The size of streambed gravel influences the size of salmon in different rivers and streams. – – – Once locked in place, a river no longer supports natural processes of channel migration that create the side channels and off-channel water bodies that shelter young salmon. These fish not only need water, they need ‘dynamic’ rivers to create and sustain suitable habitat. Without a doubt, the best way to allow a river to retain some natural character is to give it a little room to move around and, well, act like a river.”

So erosion is very beneficial for maximizing the range of gravel size in the deposition zone along with water velocity and depth.

I want you to think about the fact that if we don’t have erosion, we don’t get the necessary entrainment (or scour) and deposition (or fill) to provide the range in gravel sizes to support the maximum range of fish sizes.

The key point is that erosion is good, even essential for fish propagation!

Now understandably, erosion hurts the landowner. Enter the 50-foot riparian setback. Within our Kenai environment it is designed and intended to police riverbank ‘stabilization’, i.e. curtail erosion for the sake of the landowners. I don’t blame the landowners. If they want it, fine. If landowners along a stretch of river want it then they should be given an opportunity to vote on it and not have it imposed upon them. One 80+ year old who had bank stabilization in place is being forced by the threat of up to a $1,000 per day fines to replace his stabilization with “approved” stabilization!

Within the riparian argument, one hears that undercut banks (cutbanks) are important for shade and bird protection! To me that is evidence of personification, ignorance and lack of experience. A very well respected, now retired, fish biologist recently told me the highest salmon minnow percentage that he ever caught during his research was typically in front of our place in Sterling. The water is just inches deep and they make no effort to look for shade, though readily available! Sea birds could have a feast!

The salmon minnows found under the precious cutbanks of the so-called riparian argument are feeding, not ‘shading’ or ducking birds! Here within the cutbanks lies the missing link. Cutbanks are formed by erosion. The impingement of high velocity water flow eats away the bank releasing nutrients that feed the fish directly and indirectly as well as releasing the multiple sized gravel creating clean and fresh spawning beds for salmon. The missing link, ‘time’ is that cutbank erosion needs to remain active, not be ‘stabilized’ and keep moving or new cutbanks need to start and move in order to maintain a steady supply of nutrients and clean, diversed-sized bedding material for spawning. The moving cutbank means that the riverbed is meandering around the flood plain, as it should, providing a continuous source of food and fresh bedding! These principles are well illustrated, though not spoken to, in the River Center’s book “On The River” pages 12 and 13. An excellent analogy is that erosion is to fish what plowing is to the farmer, a continuous source of nutrition. The vast majority of our Kenai fresh water bodies are either slow moving or unpopulated and have no need of government ‘overreach’ mandating ‘stabilization’.

There is also a missing link with respect to the word ‘riparian’. ‘Ripairian’ means ‘nearshore’, a big, deceptive, misnomer in this case! For immediately, the ‘riparian’ promoter starts into a long rendition of how wide should it be 50 feet, 100 feet, 250 feet, etc. Having been raised on a farm with a trout stream running through it and working with Cornell University, we contoured farmed a half-mile away for the sake of erosion control! My grand father’s farm (in the family since 1792) a mile downstream did the same. The missing link is the word ‘riparian’ itself. ‘Riparian’ is a bad choice of wording in the context of how it is most often used here. For its use is almost immediately coupled with ‘how wide’ it should be! Rather, what is actually being described is actually “uplands’” erosion mitigation. In our area mitigation was done without any of this onerous regulation!

In conclusion, erosion is essential for fish preservation! Our runs of salmon other than Kings are doing well. Over fishing of our Kings is our central problem! Granted, erosion is bad for us land owners. The collision and ignorance of erosion, landowner property damage coupled with $.25 words such as anadromous and riparian has been promulgated into the promotion of the welfare of a local non-profit’s well being at the expense of the extortion of 50’ of property rights, without tax relief, for property owners throughout the entire Borough!

You do realize that this riparian nonsense is also contributing to your tax burdens don’t you? Your tax dollars pay for the facilities, staff salaries, staff insurance, staff benefits, high resolution helicopter photography, and very expensive software for the management and policing of this invasion of privacy!

And all for what? Today’s loss of our King Salmon fishery is essentially and senselessly being blamed on the land owner. Is it not time to forget all of this rhetoric and acknowledge that the real problem is that we have over-fished our King salmon and deal with that problem?

Having removed many logjams of hardwood trees much larger than anything here on the Kenai Peninsula including several trips in the last few years; my heart goes out to you, my fellow landowners, who suffer from erosion. My opinion is that if those on a given portion of an anadromous water body want some erosion buffer by regulation, I support doing so by a vote of those affected but not by edict.

Other than that, may I encourage you to come help your neighbors regain their stolen property rights of today at our July 7th Kenai Assembly meeting, for tomorrow it will be your property rights!

Stan Welles owns and operates Alaska Aircraft Engineering, LLC. While he is a Kenai Borough Assemblyman, for this discussion he is a farm boy with a lot of erosion experience.

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