State conservation department releases 2020 water quality data

2020 provided a window for researchers to collect water samples in Alaska, without the usual...
2020 provided a window for researchers to collect water samples in Alaska, without the usual presence of cruise ships and the million-plus passengers they bring to the state each year.
Published: Feb. 26, 2021 at 7:32 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In 2020, some of the most heavily travelled shipping corridors in Alaskan waters saw far less traffic that in a typical year.

Researchers from the Department of Environmental Conservation took full advantage of the situation, collecting water at 20 sites along shipping lanes in Southeast Alaska on top of 16 sites where samples were taken near ports and harbors.

DEC has conducted water sampling in and around select harbors since 2015, but environmental program specialist Brock Tabor says that the Division of Water was able to expand its research last summer thanks to an availability in funding and staff that made it possible to collect and process more water samples.

“Collecting water data in certain harbors, we’ve been doing that for a much longer period of time via the beach program,” Tabor said. “The cruise ship program, we’ve been doing that since 2016, but we’ve been looking at just beaches and marine areas since well before I joined the agency.”

When DEC analyzes water samples they look for any indication of pollutants or contamination, but the team also records other data — temperature, pH, oxygen levels and more.

“We’re trying to build a record, and have a better understanding of what is or isn’t present,” Tabor said. “The more data that we have, the more confidently we can say: Is this particular condition more representative of what is normally here, or not here?”

The opportunity to collect samples during a period of low marine traffic might provide a valuable snapshot of what Alaska’s water quality looks like when shipping and harbor activity are lower; however, Tabor says more data will be needed to start identifying any trends that might be occurring.

“For bacteria, we went and took samples five different times within a 30-day period,” he said. “It gives us a little bit more of an indication of what might be happening during that particular period. It gives us a little more of an indication of what might be happening in that particular period, but you can’t say that’s necessarily representative of the water at large.”

According to a statement that DEC released alongside the results, Water Division Director Randy Bates says the data collected last year should prove to be useful when the state begins drafting new general permits for commercial passenger vessels.

“The additional testing was already planned before the summer started, and the absence of cruise ships in 2020 gave us an opportunity to get baseline data for Alaska’s port and shipping corridor water quality without the presence of 1.2 million visitors,” he wrote.

The plan for 2021 is to continue collecting samples at the same sights where DEC recorded data last summer.

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