By Robin Mayo
If you’ve ever crossed the Copper River bridge near Chitina, chances are you’ve noticed several half-buried vehicles, motorhomes, and other junk upstream from the bridge, where the Kotsina River joins the Copper River. And chances are if you’ve noticed, you’ve wondered why “someone” hasn’t done “something” about it!
Various local groups have been aware of the problem and looking for a solution for years, but it is a thorny one, with multiple landowners, a meandering river, and a huge cost. Legally, responsibility for removing abandoned vehicles falls to the owner, and after 14 days without a permit they are considered to be trespassing. In 2017 the State of Alaska contacted all of the vehicle owners requesting their removal, but received no response.
Why is this project important? As well as being an eyesore, the vehicles contain toxic fluids and materials which are washed into the river as they break apart. They create a hazard to safe boating and enjoyment of the area. And sadly, junk serves as an invitation for more junk, while a clean environment encourages users to be better stewards of the resource.
Another question we’ve been asked about this project is “Why doesn’t the state and/or vehicle owners (or someone else) take care of this? Why ask for donations to clean up someone else’s mess?” Yes, someone else should be cleaning it up, but they aren’t! At this point the cost of removal far exceeds the value of the vehicles. The challenges of cleanup and risk to the river increase with time, and we’d just like to be part of the solution.
Copper River Watershed Project has had this on its “wish list” for years, but funding has been a huge barrier. There was a breakthrough this summer, when Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction volunteered to provide machinery and a skilled crew to extract the vehicles. A local property owner, fish wheel operator, and lover of Copper River salmon, Cruz has a construction crew working in the area and saw it as an opportunity to do a public service and help protect the fishery.
With the Cruz Construction offer removing one of the biggest obstacles and many other projects hampered by Covid19 restrictions, this fall is great timing. The State of Alaska recently issued a permit for the project, and we are in the midst of conversations with other potential partners. WISE is providing local support and organizing a volunteer effort to help with removing debris that can be collected by hand. Last fall a cleanup of popular camping and dipnetting spots in the area yielded two pickup truck loads of garbage.
The meandering Kotsina River, which emerges from a canyon and flows across a wide flood plain before joining with the Copper, is one of the trickiest challenges of the project. For years it was confined to the west side of the flood plain by dikes, making a large area of riverbank upstream from the Copper River bridge easily accessible. But with the dikes no longer maintained, the Kotsina has rerouted, and the vehicles ended up on the other side, or in some cases right in the channel.
(At this point I’m going to diverge a little and explain that the Kotsina River was just doing what rivers do best: carrying sediments, depositing them, seeking low places to flow to, and meandering about on the flood plain. Having been restrained for a while, it was not a surprise that it shifted to the opposite side. For a detailed description of this process and man’s mostly ineffectual quest to manage it, I highly recommend John McPhee’s book “Control of Nature,” with a fascinating section about the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya Basin.)
If all goes to plan, the actual removal will take place in late September or early October, when low water levels will make everything easier. The vehicles will be extracted, any remaining fluids removed, and broken into pieces for disposal. We will also remove other debris such as derelict fishwheels. The team is looking into the possibility of recycling some of the metal.
And here is where the “someone” who should do “something” about this mess becomes YOU! The next big obstacle is finding funding to haul away and dispose of the estimated 50 cubic yards of debris. As well as asking for support from agencies and businesses, we are running a crowdfunding campaign so that everyone who loves the area can pitch in. Links to donate can be found on the WISE website (www.wise-edu.org) and Copper River Watershed Project website (www.copperriver.org) You can also donate via text message: text CLEANKOTSINA to 44-321.
Photo Credit: Copper River Watershed Project. This photo taken several years ago shows abandoned vehicles and fishwheel debris in the Kotsina River, just upstream of the Copper River bridge at Chitina.
By Moses Korth
Kids Don’t Float is a statewide project where lifeguard loaner stations are installed and serviced by local organizations. WISE fulfilled the wish of a local family by installing one at Pippin Lake. Hura for the joy of it.
Unconventional. That is the only way to describe the rollercoaster of a year we're having. But even as Covide-19 tries to cripple the productivity of our community; WISE has adapted its methods. WISE has begun looking at our programs, changing them so that they're still relevant, but that they honor social distancing. Robin Mayo, (the executive director) has declared, “The world is a dynamic place, and I hope I’m able to continue to do my job, and continue to have a positive impact on the decisions being made.” We have been trying to protect our community from virus spread by leading by example, and to that end we have made many sacrifices. But just because we have stopped face to face programs that doesn't mean our mission has failed. On the contrary this wrench in the works just means we have to get a little...creative.
“Our mission is to provide science, and environmental education for all ages. Support for scientific research, and share the natural wonders of the copper river valley.” Robin told me during our interview. She said, “I’m motivated by a desire to share the outdoor privileges I had growing up with these kids.” And, “The knowledge that I can make a positive impact on them.”
To this end we took up this project. We hope that this will give more kids the chance to play at Pippin Lake with the safety equipment they need. These life jackets could save someone's life, and are already being used. Effectively eliminating one obstacle in the way of your family, and enjoying the outdoors at Pippen Lake.
This project was inspired and founded by the family of the late Sam Lightwood. It was his dream to build a swimming pool, but a pool would be too much up-keep, so his family compromised by using the money he left to found this, and other organizations. But keeping it stocked with life jackets is no mean feat. If you would like to become part of the effort to keep kids safe, and have extra flotation devices in good condition; then give us a call, at 907-822-3575. One more way you could help is to notify us when gear breaks. The last thing we want is to provide faulty equipment.
I’m the intern here at WISE, and when I first heard about this project I was super excited. I had never heard of Kids Don’t Float, and had no idea what went into setting up a kiosk. Building this sign has been a very educational experience. First I had to get permission from DOT, then I had to build a blueprint to find out what materials I needed, and after I had the materials I had to build it. I had lots of help along the way. My dad helped me build it and let me use his tools, and Robin, her daughter Elvie, and part of the Upstream Student Council helped install it. We ate pizza and had a blast.
I’d also like to thank everyone who was a part of making this a success. Especially BLM and the Lightwood family for funding, and Doug Vollman who obtained the life jackets. The Upstream student council, and my dad. Robin, Elvie, and Paul Boos who provided the trailer. And most importantly everyone who is using and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Construction is complete.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.