Inletkeeper Establishes Data Library
Since the late 1990’s, Cook Inletkeeper has collected data from water flowing into the Cook Inlet with help from an army of volunteers. The group now has a collection of data they believe will, for the first time, offer a definitive picture of water quality for the Kachemak Bay and Anchor River Watersheds.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaskans were at a loss to understand exactly how much damage the millions of gallons of crude did to water quality. Rachel Lord with Cook Inletkeeper says that event was one of the motivating factors that led to the launch of the Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Program, or CEMP.
“There was a lot of concern for the lack of having baseline data and understanding what the conditions had been before that spill,” says Lord.
Baseline data is a historical standard to compare to present day water conditions. How have temperatures changed? What animals are living in or near specific water bodies?
Lord says she hears those questions from people outside of Alaska who are contending with the effects of pollution.
“It may be the encroachment of development and a long term pecking away at habitat, water quality, and pretty soon you’re looking at a system that may be impaired,” says Lord. "People really bemoan, in other places, the similar worry that they didn’t know what their ecosystems, their streams, and their backyards looked like.”
Cook Inletkeeper and like-minded conservationists didn’t want to stay in the dark. They wanted to know, which led to the start of CEMP in 1996. The program opened its doors to anyone who wanted to volunteer to help collect data. In the Homer area alone, they’ve trained more than 300 people in the collection process. Thanks to partnerships with organizations around Cook Inlet, the program had boots on the ground observing water systems throughout the watershed for nearly two decades.
“Getting people’s hands wet and really connecting them to the place that they live, [empowers] them to collect baseline information that helps us understand where we are in this point in time and track changes over time,” says Lord.
Lord says each year’s data gathered through CEMP has been summarized in very brief annual reports since its start. Now, the program has put together enough information to build its long-sought baseline report. She refers to it as a library.
“Our annual reports include all of the sites that we’ve monitored within that year," says Lord. "It’s kind of the quick and dirty overview. Here are all the sites. Here are some highlights of what we’ve seen. Here is how this year maybe compares to previous years.”
But this library she’s helping to build is going to be a different animal entirely. It’s going to have it all. For example, the finished report will allow someone to find a base comparison for Beaver Creek, a tributary to the Anchor River.
“We look at the whole Beaver Creek Watershed and look at the land use patterns and the ownership and impervious cover if we have that information,” says Lord.
Impervious cover is any surface that can’t absorb water. The report would also hold information on water temperatures, chemical analyses, and invasive species.
“We’re looking at the overall watershed or sub-watershed picture there," says Lord. "So what does the land use look like around these streams? What have we seen around the last 10 to 15 years? And now what we’re doing is pulling all of the pieces together so summarizing all of that information together in an easy to use format.”
The data that will fill the library comes from 16 locations feeding into the Kachemak Bay and Anchor River Watersheds. The data sets from those sites were the only ones that met the criteria necessary to build a reliable baseline.
The plan is to have the entire library completed by next year. Lord says she doesn’t know of another database quite like it and she believes it will become a powerful tool to help protect water resources.