Little Campbell Creek ran dry this summer - where did the water go?

Little Campbell Creek in August, 2017, the first time Dr. Thom Eley said he saw it run dry.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - In 2017, Paul Gebauer, a resident of Pacer Drive in South Anchorage, went out for a walk with his dog, finding that the creek that normally passed through his yard was essentially dry.

“One day it was flowing, then it just died,” said Gebauer, “I didn't know what caused that.”

Gebauer was concerned, not just for his property, which the creek runs through, but also for the health of the river. He said that he saw some trout swimming around the inescapable pools that were left in the stream.

Gebauer called the Anchorage Waterways Council, a research and advocacy group that monitors the health of Anchorage creeks, and got in contact with a Dr. Thom Eley, a researcher there.

“I was like, ‘What? I’ve never heard of that,'” said Eley. “And so I met up with him at his residence and we walked down to the South Fork and sure enough, it was almost entirely dry.”

Paul Gebauer, whose property abuts a section of Little Campbell Creek that ran dry several times over the past few years, describes the flow of the creek.

After doing some investigating, Eley realized that above the Alaska Zoo, water levels looked pretty much normal, below it, there was virtually nothing.

So, where was the water going?

Eley found a suspect. The Anchorage Golf Course, located a few blocks down O’Malley Road, has a water use permit that allows it to draw 112 gallons per minute from the creek.

The source was listed as a water diversion pond on the northwest corner of the Alaska Zoo. Eley thought that would explain the dramatic water difference above and below the diversion pond.

He studied the matter and included his research in a report he says he delivered to several state and local agencies.

The first time that Eley and Gebauer had seen the creek run dry was in 2017. In 2018, a year with normal precipitation, there were no issues.

But then the extreme drought of 2019 struck.

Eley made regular visits to the creek to check on it. “I probably checked it four times this summer and it was at least dry twice,” he said.

When he went above the diversion pond, he again found it low, but still flowing. He estimated the rate of flow above the pond at about 450 gallons per minute, below the pond, there was essentially nothing.

For the first time ever, Anchorage recorded “extreme drought” for August. With temperature models predicting warmer summers, Eley was particularly concerned.

Despite the low flows he observed, baseline stream flows were measured in 1986, the year the permit was issued to the golf course, at about 1167 cubic feet per second during the summer.

Though there aren’t any ongoing measurements of the creek, the permit issued to the Anchorage Golf Course shows that they are required to allow at least 897 gallons per minute (2 cubic feet per second) to flow from the stream, no matter whether or not they are able to retrieve the 212 gallons per minute that they were issued by the permit. If the water flow upstream of the diversion tank falls below that level, the golf course is supposed to stop taking any water.

Rich Sayers, general manager of the Anchorage Golf Course said the golf course was also concerned about low water from the drought this year. He said that after investigating the course's permits earlier this week, he discovered that at some point during creek restoration, the weir regulating water intake into the stream during times of low-flow was removed by official agencies.

"For the first 30 years, that weir was set up so that no water would be diverted until that 2 cubic feet per second was met," said Sayers. "So, the old system did it automatically."

With the new system, nobody is regulating water flow, and there was no mechanism to prevent overdrawing.

Dan Saddler, the communications director for the Department of Natural Resources, says that the department hadn’t been given a copy of the Anchorage Waterways Council report until Channel 2 made him aware of it.

The department said that records show the project went through a normal approval process and was in compliance with standards to get the permit back in the 1980s.

DNR also says the golf course is up for a water right which would last in perpetuity. That application for the right has been classified as "under review" since 1986, including during dry years in 2017 and 2019. But, Saddler said that “it won’t take another 30 years” to complete.

The department says it is currently “looking at the issue” and that, “The review for a Water Right will remain on hold until the investigation is complete and water use data has been acquired.”

That investigation includes an analysis of the flow, the quantity of water diverted, the quantity of water used, and other factors. Alaska Department of Fish and Game is also examining the creek and withdrawal site to assess for salmon habitability.

Sayers of the Anchorage Golf Course says that he was told by regulators that they are going to be examining the diversion tank sometime next week to decide how to proceed.

For advocates like Eley at the Waterways Council, the issue is more than about compliance, it's about making sure that the streams are clean and healthy for salmon in the face of warming temperatures, and potentially less water all around.

“It’s been a big move within the municipality in the past few years, the city project to get the streams cleaned up. In the 80s, some of these streams were considered health hazards, and so the Waterways Council and the municipality have worked for a long time trying to get the streams squared away,” he said.

It not only helps the fish, it helps anglers by putting more fish in the river farther downstream. With low and warm water affecting many anadromous streams in Southcentral this year, any extra water will help salmon runs.

It also helps neighbors such as Gebauer, who says a healthy stream is what attracted him to the property in the first place.

“I bought the property about 10 years ago, had a couple kids, it was nice. Who doesn't want a creek in their yard?”

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