Sunday, June 21, 2015

Chena Slough Restoral - Part 1

The Interior of Alaska is dominated by two large river systems: The Tanana and the Yukon. These two rivers form vast drainage systems and support an amazing array of plant and animal life. The rivers and lakes in these areas have been important for navigation and food, for both a subsistence lifestyle and commercial travel and harvest.

Yukon/Tanana Rivers Drainage System (cite: AKFWS)

Recently, one of the tributaries to the Tanana River has come into some trouble. The going theory is that someone dumped their aquarium into the Chena Slough near the town of North Pole. The aquarium's fish surely died, if there were any, but the pretty plants it contained have taken over several miles of a slow-moving stream. Eradication efforts are underway to remove this invasive weed and restore flow to the Chena Slough. (See local newspaper article)

So far, these eradication efforts have revolved simply around pulling the weeds. This makes for great "photo-ops" but does little for removing the fast-growing weed. Recently it has been proposed to step the efforts up a notch by applying an aquatic herbicide, Fluridone, to the Chena Slough. Fluridone, the company salesman from Indiana tells us, is harmless to humans and [$600,000 worth of chemical...] should be very effective at removing trouble weeds from our local waterways.

Picture from Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

In this series, we will look at the issues surrounding the invasive weed, locally referred to as "Elodea," and then take a look at a dysfunctional waterway that possibly needs some human intervention.

PART 1 - The Water

According to most definitions, a "slough" (/slou, slo͞o/) is a swamp, or a river running through a swamp. To early travelers that arrived in Alaska by steamboat or on foot, the vast, mosquito-filled land seemed like a giant swamp and the flood channels that cut through the dense forest were labeled as  sloughs on early maps. Nearly every slough in Alaska begins and ends in the same river. A glance at a map of the Tanana River shows examples of many sloughs. The Alaska definition of a slough is, "a side channel of the main river."

Figure 1. Tanana River Sloughs near Fairbanks, AK. Courtesy USGS

In this 30 mile section of the Tanana River (figure 1), numerous sloughs are apparent, the bigger ones named. Most sloughs are navigable by boat at least part of the open-water season (May - October). The Chena River is a tributary to the Tanana River. Early explorers referred to the Chena River as Chena Slough. Until the 1970s, the lower 30 miles of the Chena River were dominated by waters entering via a slough that originated near Moose Creek, about 30 miles from what is now considered the mouth of the Chena River. After a massive, damaging flood in 1967, a flood channel and dike system were created that stopped the waters from the Tanana River from entering the Chena River via Chena Slough.

The Upper End of Chena Slough

An aerial photo from 1938 shows the Chena Slough as it departs the Tanana River between the town of Salcha and Eielson Air Force Base. The Chena Slough flowed swiftly through what is now the town of North Pole and residential areas along Badger Road. Most local residents refer to the Chena Slough as "Badger Slough." In 1938, the Chena Slough was further fed by waters from Moose Creek and French Creek. The Chena Slough was historically used by native Athabaskans as a travel route between the Tanana River and the hills surrounding the Chena River. Early explorers to the region used the Chena Slough as a portage around shallow rapids on the Tanana, often guided by local Athabaskans who knew the many channels and dangers of the Chena Slough.

Figure 2. 1938 Aerial View of Moose Creek Area. Courtesy Fairbanks North Star Borough Archives
In Figure 2, the 1938 photo (with 1-mile grid lines), the Chena Slough appears as a deep, silty extension of the Tanana River. Moose Creek flows in from the right near Moose Creek Bluffs. Contrasted with an aerial view of today (Figure 3), there is no semblance of Chena Slough as it once existed. In these two photos, the grid lines are accurate for reference location. In 1938, the Richardson Highway had not yet been built and limited habitation is apparent.

Figure 3. 2012 Aerial View of Moose Creek Area. Courtesy Fairbanks North Star Borough Archives

In Figure 3, the massive Chena Lakes Flood Control Project is visible. Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1968 and 1981, the 8 mile levee severed the Chena Slough from its connection with the Tanana River, forever changing the course of history for the Chena Slough. The original beginnings of the Chena Slough are now referred to as "Piledriver Slough" which ends at its confluence with Moose Creek, as seen in the center of Figure 3.

Figure 4. Infographic of the Chena Lakes Flood Project. Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

The Lower End of Chena Slough

Historically, the Chena Slough ran from the Tanana River through low-lying lands of spruce and birch forests for  approximately 30 miles until it joined the Chena River about 3 miles downstream of where Nordale Road bridge is located today. To early inhabitants and explorers, this would have been considered the mouth of the Chena River. The waters of the Chena River run clear to brownish, compared to the gray glacial silt waters of the Tanana River and the original Chena Slough.

A comparison of the landscape at the mouth of the Chena River as seen in 1938 to that of today shows a remarkable transformation.

Figure 5. 1938: Mouth of the Chena River at Chena Slough.  Courtesy FNSB Archives
 In 1938, the Chena River emptied into the Chena Slough approximately 30 miles upstream of the present day mouth of the Chena River near the Fairbanks International Airport. As witnessed by figure 5, the dark waters of the Chena are readily absorbed by the overpowering Chena Slough waters. This confluence sits in a unique geological area, consisting of a shallow layer of bedrock which was of interest to early miners. The area around the old mouth of the Chena River is littered with abandoned mining equipment, drag-lines, cabins, and mine shafts. This was an important fishing area for Athabaskans, the clear waters of the Chena holding great numbers of pike, whitefish, sheefish, graying, suckers, burbot, and a healthy summer run of king and chum salmon. The numerous cuts and dried slough channels in this area show the ever-changing nature of this type river system. The ground here is mainly a thick (4-10') layer of loose silt atop a 20-30 foot layer of gravel deposited from thousands of years of glacial activity.

Figure 6. 2014: Mouth of the Chena River at Chena Slough.  Courtesy Google Maps
In an aerial photo from 2014, the Chena Slough appears as a trickle of its former self. The Chena River continues to run clear and dark now until it empties into the Tanana River 20 miles downstream. The lower 2 miles of the Chena Slough now rise and fall with the Chena River. The Chena Slough at this point rises and falls approximately 12-15 feet as the Chena River endures annual flood cycles. The only reason houses can exist in this area is because of the Chena Lakes Flood Control Project dam that diverts Chena River floodwaters through a floodplain and dike system to the Tanana River. Note that many old Chena Slough channels have been filled and are now occupied with housing. [Author's note: The star in the photo denotes my home, where I have lived since 2004.]

The New Chena Slough

Not really a slough at all, anymore, the Chena Slough contains ground water that seeps in through natural springs and underground aquifers in the area. The Chena Slough has gradually become little more than a swampy ditch in its upper stretches, completely choked by native weeds. Road crossings, bridges and culverts restrict the flow further. A project to replace small culverts to improve flow was completed in 2013 with few results. The main problem with the Chena Slough is that it has no headwaters. It is forever destined to become the "Chena Seep."

The US Geological Society defines a seepage as:

seepage--(1) The slow movement of water through small cracks, pores, Interstices, etc., of a material into or out of a body of surface or subsurface water.

Or possibly the "Chena Stream," although it may be a partial canal due to its heavily engineered design.

stream--a general term for a body of flowing water; natural water course containing water at least part of the year. In hydrology, it is generally applied to the water flowing in a natural channel as distinct from a canal.

These terms more clearly define the Chena Slough. Hundreds of drinking wells lie within yards of the Chena Slough. Many people irrigate gardens and lawns. Moose live their entire lives within the riparian habitat along the Chena Slough and are harvested by local residents for food. Many people eat fish caught in Chena Slough. Thousands of ducks use the Chena Slough as a nesting area. The Chena Slough is now a groundwater seepage stream, only a small portion of which is navigable by any type of boat.

The Future of the Chena Slough

With the completion of the Chena Lakes Flood Project in 1981, residents of the area gave up a navigable channel of the Tanana River in return for thousands of acres of land that could now be used for housing, and gained insurance that yearly floods would no longer be a threat to the town of Fairbanks (Figure 7).

Figure 7. 1968 Flood.
But what of this invasive Elodea? Is the plant the problem? Or is the slough itself the real issue?

The Elodea infestation was first discovered in 2010 about 3 miles upstream from the mouth of the Chena Slough near the bridge on Repp Road. Someone presumably discarded an imported aquarium plant. Since then, the slough below that point has become increasingly filled with elodea. However, upstream from this point, the slough is completely choked with native weeds. In some areas, with no invasive species of aquatic vegetation, the slough appears as if one could walk across it.

If Elodea had never been introduced, the Chena Slough would still be in a death spiral. Silt that had been deposited centuries ago settles into the slow-moving seepage. Aquatic vegetation of any kind finds this an inviting place to grow. The entire Chena Slough was probably floatable by canoe for only a few years after it was separated from the Tanana River. Beavers and human bridge builders continually chipped away at the flow of the Chena Slough until numerous restrictions turned many sections into a more pond-like ecosystem.

Even if every bridge were removed, and every single plant was eradicated, the Chena Slough would not be navigable, nor would it ever return to its former status as a free-running slough. It is not a slough, and no one should expect it to behave as one.

The "Lakes"

In addition to the elodea infestation in the Chena Slough, this invasive weed is also seen in Chena Lakes. Chena Lakes is actually just one lake, built as a gravel pit for the Chena Lakes Flood Control Project. The gravel pit has since filled in with ground and rain water and is used as a local recreation spot.

Figure 8. Chena Lakes Site, 1938. Courtesy FNSB

Figure 9. Chena Lakes, 2012 (FNSB)
The Chena Lakes complex, with its one lake, is not connected to local waterways. The Elodea infestation possibly started with a cross-contamination from a boater who brought the plant from elsewhere. Attempts have been made here to eradicate Elodea by suction dredge and manual pulling with limited success. Chena Lakes is a man-made and man-controlled ecosystem, if managers want to poison the lake to remove the Elodea, it is at their own discretion. There are no private waterfront homes around Chena Lakes. Elodea has interfered with recreational boating, swimming, and fishing for the past 5 years and gets progressively worse. 

In part two of this series, we'll explore the weeds involved. In part 3 we'll discuss eradication methods and look at a report written for the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District in 2013 entitled, "Chena Slough Hydrologic and Hydraulic Analysis for Existing Conditions and Channel Modifications." This report outlines numerous methods for improving the flow of the Chena Slough and holds the key to why Fluridone herbicide is not the right answer. Part 4 will outline a plan for the future of the Chena Slough that does not involve chemicals and an unsustainable management plan.


  1. To anyone interested. I'm putting this together for our local newspaper, or if they won't have it, anyone who will listen. Please, if you see any mistakes or things that are not clear, drop a comment so that I can correct it.

    This is "my" river we're talking about here. I water my garden, chickens, and bees from the Chena Slough. I eat the fish and use the weeds for compost in my garden. I do not want to see this stretch of water poisoned with chemicals as they are contemplating.


    PS. If anyone fails to see the parallels between a healthy river and a healthy gut, we need to talk!

    1. Bees in Alaska? How hard is it to overwinter them?

  2. I read it all. Very good. Didn't see your comment till the end. Minor typo: "and THEN look at the dysfunctional". (Or something close to that--I'm on my phone and navigation is hard.) It is right at the end of the introduction, before Part 1. I wish you luck. I know how frustrating this is as it can affect your lifestyle so personally. Would be nice to have something/someone to back up your words regarding it was not navigable, won't be navigable. Geologist or something from the area. TFites

  3. Many parallels indeed.

    Mislead and uninformed people popping "magic" pills, mislead and uninformed city halls and agencies hoping for a "magic"herbicide. We want our lakes clean NOW!

    How foolish. Nature is smarter than us.

    1. The more I read about this the madder I get. If I were into conspiracy theories, I be going crazy.

  4. How to make a stinking mess: cause a massive plant die off. Brilliant. Kill off the fish and everything else in the water by reducing oxygen levels due to bacterial action on dead vegetation. Then you'll end up with bluegreen algae which stinks and can be toxic as well. And then what? Ooops?

    From the distribution map in this article, it would appear that Elodea is not a 'stranger' to Alaska.

    1. Cool map and link, thanks. Supposedly Elodea is not native to Alaska, but I have my doubts after researching Part 2.

      Killing ALL plant life in the slough for 3 YEARS, in the HOPES of removing a plant that MIGHT be invasive. Yay, government!

    2. When my daughters were going to summer camp on Georgian Bay, the camp directors told the kids that no more pissing in the lake. They showed the kids an oil drum and told them that when they are all peeing in the lake, the amount they pee is equal to the volume of this oil drum. (I don't honestly know if this was an exaggeration or not but whatev.) So, being good campers, the kids would get out of the lake to go pee in the toilets instead. There were quite a lot of water weeds growing in the swimming area. Afterwards, the weeds disappeared.

      At the time I had a number of planted aquariums at home so my kids understood the chemistry of what it takes to grow aquatic plants and they were very aware of what happened at camp once urine application ceased.

      Tell those damn Alaskans to stop pissing in the pond! There needs to be a proper water analysis for nitrates and possibly also phosphates. If these are highish, then killing the plants is going in the wrong direction.

  5. Figure 6 labeled as 2012 but text has 2014. Text between Figures 2 & 3 is a little confusing as to which map is being discussed (i.e. "highway has not been built" ... in 1938, 2012, or today. Maybe just replace "has" with "had")

    I look forward to reading the rest of the series. Parallels are obvious in both the cause and hopefully finding the path to a healthy ecosystem. The root of the problem was not really the introduction of the aquarium plant. Removing it won't "solve" anything.

    1. Got them, thanks. That's the feedback I need.

    2. This is just a style suggestion :

      "In Figure 3, visible is the massive Chena Lakes Flood Control Project, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1968 and 1981."

      change to something like

      "In Figure 3, the massive Chena Lakes Flood Control Project (constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1968 and 1981) is visible."

  6. Alaska has all three species of elodea: canadensis, nuttalli, and the "alaska hybrid" - all three species are found across the state - and blowing the non-native theory out of the water, no pun intended. You should also look at the benefits of elodea, the fact that at least two states are protecting elodea under the Endangered Species Act, and many additional states are propagating their elodea because without it their ecosystems fell apart - elodea pull sediment and contaminants out of the water and produces massive amounts of oxygen. Just the absence of elodea from Alaska will be detrimental, plus the herbiciding of the state (at the benefit of millions of dollars to the herbicide company) will cause damage and literally make the situation worse. ALL of Alaska's plants are growing out of control in areas that are being impacted by development, additional contaminants, etc. -- God put Elodea on the earth to clean dirty water, it has a purpose that no other plant can duplicate, and it's been in Alaska for decades, the only ones that found it were those looking (only on the road system and where floatplanes use so they could make a case for no-human-access to the pristine areas, i.e. close down all federal and state land, 98% of the state)....and those looking were those wanting to create an industry and healthy income for themselves. Just follow the money and political cause, ignore what elodea does FOR us, ignore that the state will be damaged, ignore the damage to private property and their owners, ignore everything common sense, just follow us agencies, we know better than anyone --- oh, and here's our "science guy" to explain it, ignore that he works for the herbicide company we want to use, and ignore the other herbicides that are applicable and will do less damage, we like THIS GUY and want to spend about $4,000,000 a year with him, on new lakes to herbicide - and those same lakes 4-5 years from now when the Elodea comes back (scientific data backs it up). ---and for God's sake, don't figure out the federal government is steering this boat and paying most of the costs, including the personnel pushing this.....and don't look up the definition of 'conflict of interest' as it would just confuse you.