By Robin Mayo
WISE and Copper River Watershed Project are moving ahead with plans to remove abandoned vehicles and other debris from the Kotsina River and floodplain, just upriver from the Copper River bridge at Chitina. Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction has volunteered heavy equipment and a crew to do the removal, and a crowdfunding campaign and generous donations are getting close to the required amount for trucking and disposal fees.
Airplane and drone flyovers of the cleanup site have shown that several of the vehicles have disappeared, but we have not yet determined if they are broken up, covered, or already washed into the river. There are also many abandoned fishwheels and other debris to be cleaned up. The project team is hoping for lower water levels in the fall. Heavy equipment will be working in the area the week of September 28-October 2, and a volunteer cleanup is scheduled for Saturday, October 3. If weather or other factors don’t cooperate, we may have to adjust these dates.
Volunteers are needed to help pick up small debris from the removal and staging areas, and also do a clean sweep of area boat launch, dipnetting and camping sites. A cleanup in the fall of 2019 yielded two pickup loads of garbage. Chitina Village has been doing an outstanding job of managing trash and outhouses this summer, but there is still work to be done.
If you’d like to help with the volunteer event, please contact WISE at 822-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Lunch and gifts will be provided for volunteers, as well as protective equipment. We will be practicing social distancing, and volunteers also have the option of signing up to clean an area any time they choose during the week of the cleanup. We request that everyone who plans to volunteer sign up, so we can plan accordingly and keep you informed if there are changes.
The response to our crowdfunding campaign has been amazing, with over 100 donors contributing a total of over $10,000. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and Chitina Village have also contributed to the project. We are still fundraising to cover the trucking and disposal fees. Vehicles and recyclable metal will be hauled out of the area, and the remainder will go to the landfill in Gulkana. Costs are estimated to be about $15,000, not including WISE and CRWP staff time. The crowdfunding campaign can be accessed from the WISE website, www.wise-edu.org, or a check can be mailed to WISE at HC 60 Box 338A Copper Center, AK 99573.
Seven different teams are competing for the spot of top fundraiser, and right now the rising star is “In Remembrance of Jason Esler.” McCarthy resident Esler was passionate about creating waste solutions for the McCarthy/Kennecott area, and was tragically lost in an accident last fall.
The team is also hoping to have enough funds to design, purchase and install signs encouraging users of the area to practice good stewardship and help protect the area. A trashed area attracts more junk, while a clean, pristine landscape and good public education can help prevent another mess.
This project is a bright spot in an otherwise hard season, when we have had to say “no” to many things. Thanks everyone for your enthusiastic support, and especially Cruz Construction for making it possible.
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.
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.