©Steve Reidsma | Stantec
What about the Water?
Hydrological environmental engineering in high demand
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

ydrological environmental engineers in the Last Frontier are not entirely sure how the rollback of Obama-era clean water regulations will impact their work. However, there is no question that their services will remain in high demand for the foreseeable future.

The Trump Administration announced the repeal of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, which placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water, in September.

Earlier in the year, the Environmental Protection Agency updated Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which was established in 1972 and requires any applicant for a federal license or permit to obtain a water quality certification from the state in which any possible discharge of water might occur.

“Recently the Section 401 permitting process is being perceived as adding delay and uncertainty for several proposed infrastructure projects,” explains Paul Dworian, AECOM’s Alaska manager for geosciences and remediation services.

The June update to Section 401 provides state guidance, pointing them toward reviewing the water quality of the actual discharge rather than the overall activity that is the subject of the federal permitting effort.

“It will be interesting to see how these changes affect our work,” Dworian says. “AECOM does work for both agencies reviewing and proponents submitting permits, although obviously not on the same project.”

Dworian says he welcomes legislation that creates a faster tempo for the permitting process, noting that in some cases reviews are not happening promptly because the state simply doesn’t have the resources to review multiple applications all at once.

“It also means that the proponent needs to make sure their permit submittal is of the highest quality, contains all the necessary information, and is submitted early in the project,” Dworian says. “That doesn’t always happen, and we can help with that.”

Nearly all of the work conducted by hydrological environmental engineers, from wetlands delineation and mapping to stream surveys and stormwater management, is dictated by the Clean Water Act.

“Our job is to identify the resources of importance for a project and help the client avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands, waters, and fish-bearing streams, which in turn streamlines the permitting process,” says Victor Ross, a Stantec senior regulatory specialist based in Wasilla.

“The larger the footprint of a project, the greater potential to impact wetlands, waters, and fish habitat. As projects get larger, the more baseline data is required for state and federal permitting.”

The developer is required to provide a comprehensive data set of wetlands, waters, and fisheries to determine the project impacts. Data must also be collected to determine if proposed mitigation offsets wetland and water losses at the project site.

These requirements have huge ramifications for development in Alaska, as about 50 percent of the state comprises wetlands, lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Only about 5.4 percent of the Lower 48 is still home to wetlands.

“It is hard to develop a project in Alaska without impacting wetlands and waters. In addition, anadromous streams and lakes are found throughout the state, providing essential fish habitat,” Ross says. “Almost every developmental project in Alaska—ports, dams, airports, power plants, landfills, roads, sewage lagoons, subdivisions, and oil and gas—require fill for project infrastructure. The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge and placement of fill material into wetlands and waters.”

To avoid or mitigate the environmental impact, it’s necessary to fully understand the area’s resources.

“Alaska is a large state and baseline resources have not been mapped and inventoried. We do not have resource mapping that exists in the Lower 48,” Ross says.

According to Dworian, most projects can be broken down with several straight forward questions:

  • How much water is needed, and is it available?
  • What uses can the water be put to?
  • How can water be conserved?
  • What is the water quality?
  • How can people be impacted by droughts and floods?
  • What’s the best way to allocate water between competing users, such as people and wildlife or industrial and residential?

“So, we provide all the hydrological services that fit those various needs. Stream flow assessments, water rights research, water quality studies, wetlands mapping, modeling, contaminated site cleanup, regulatory compliance. Various engineering services designed around water supply, treatment, and flood control,” Dworian says.

A significant amount of the work carried out by hydrological environmental engineers in Alaska is focused on anadromous fish habitat.

“Approximately 50 percent of our team’s environmental services work is connected to fish habitat,” says Steve Reidsma, a Stantec senior wetland scientist based in Fairbanks.” “Any time we come to a stream in a design, we ask if this is anadromous fish habitat. We consider all options for crossing the stream. Can we bridge, bore under, or circumvent the site? We are always looking to avoid and minimize impacts during construction.”

For small, independent mining claims, the amount of permitting needed to establish a temporary crossing of an anadromous stream might require little work. However, for larger resource extraction projects that sometimes cover thousands of acres, it’s inevitable that the applicant will cross several anadromous fish streams and need to go through a more rigorous permitting process.

“These streams and riparian wetland systems are likely the highest value acreage in a project area. It is our goal to avoid and minimize impacts in these areas. If impacts are necessary, we design permittable and practicable solutions,” Reidsma says. “Streams in the area that are non-fish bearing inevitably flow and connect to anadromous streams. That’s a pattern across much of the state. So, if we have a stream in the project, we scrutinize the potential impact and the effects of the construction plans.”

The type of mitigation solution deployed to minimize the impact on fish-bearing water sources depends on several factors, including the type, location, and timing of the project, as well as the type of fish impacted, explains Erica Betts, lead environmental engineer with PDC Engineers.

“There are differences between the type of fish, such as resident and anadromous species, as well as the life history stages in which a fish species utilizes an impacted area,” Betts says.

Resident species might overwinter in a pond or lake at the headwaters of a stream, migrating lower down in the system or even into the ocean in the spring and returning in the fall, Betts says.

“Almost every developmental project in Alaska—ports, dams, airports, power plants, landfills, roads, sewage lagoons, subdivisions, and oil and gas—require fill for project infrastructure. The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge and placement of fill material into wetlands and waters.”
Victor Ross, Senior Regulatory Specialist, Stantec
“If you interrupt those migratory pathways at those times, you’d risk stranding that population—so timing might be the most important criteria for mitigating impacts. Whereas salmon that come up to spawn, they might traditionally find redds near your project, where the fish eggs are laid,” Betts says. “If the stretch you’re impacting is a very popular spawning area, the sediment you would displace could cover those redds, which would negatively impact the recruitment of the next year’s cohort.”

And hydrological environmental engineering firms are tasked with assessments well beyond fish habitat and wetlands.

“Alaska has a lot of naturally impaired water: waters with high arsenic, or high levels of organics, or iron. Despite the 3 million lakes, and all those unnamed streams, good quality water may be difficult to find, especially in the winter,” Dworian says. “The North Slope is known as an Arctic desert, getting less than ten inches of rain and snow per year, about the same as the Sahara Desert. On the North Slope water is a critical and important resource that must be carefully managed.”

One water quality-focused project is the Moose Creek Water Expansion, which got underway after the US Air Force detected perfluorochemicals in wells in Moose Creek, near Eielson Air Force Base.

The City of North Pole, the Air Force, and PDC Engineers are working together to conceptualize a plan to extend the North Pole public water utility to Moose Creek. According to estimates from the Air Force’s Interim Feasibility Study, it’ll cost between $34 million and $40 million to expand the system and maintain it over thirty years.

“Our teams don’t work on the easy walking hilltops and dry ridges—we work in the valley bottoms, the low areas where water collects in the alders and the willow thickets.”
Steve Reidsma, Senior Wetland Scientist, Stantec
“We need to determine [several factors] when we’re designing and installing these water systems: Can we avoid the groundwater contamination? If not, how are we going to deal with that water? Are there creek and wetland crossings? Are there anadromous fish streams? Those sorts of questions,” Betts says.

Though there are a myriad of questions and tasks, perhaps the biggest challenge faced by hydrological environmental engineers in Alaska are similar to those challenges faced by people working in many industries in the Last Frontier—data scarcity in a vast, remote landscape.

“Alaska has very little developed infrastructure,” Reidsma says. “We often have projects in remote locations with limited access. Helicopters are often used to gain access to the sites. Travel is dependent on acceptable weather and visibility.”

Reidsma contrasts working in remote Alaska with a two-week trip two Stantec team members took to Nevada to collect baseline water data on projects.

“They were able to drive to the job site daily. It was a 1.5-hour drive to the job site each day, but the point is they could drive,” Reidsma says. “In Alaska, once you get off-road, you will use a helicopter for access.”

Ensuring the safety of field-deployed team members also increases the difficulty of operating in Alaska.

“There are few developed landing sites; most landings are made on unimproved locations. You face poor visibility, thunderstorms, and smoke during the summer,” Reidsma says. “We rely on ourselves; we are first aid trained and in good shape to get to our locations. Our teams don’t work on the easy walking hilltops and dry ridges—we work in the valley bottoms, the low areas where water collects in the alders and the willow thickets.”

Not only do hydrological environmental engineers need to wrestle with the vastness of Alaska, but they are often faced with starkly different ecosystems, from the temperate rain forests of the panhandle to the Arctic desert of the North Slope—and everything in between, Dworian says.

“Also, there are logistical challenges, and the limited windows [in which] we can gather data. In those terms, a single water sample may cost $10,000 in time and materials to collect, so every element of the project needs to be executed perfectly, and every sample needs to advance the project toward a decision without wasted effort,” Dworian says. “Lastly, people have a different relationship to the natural environment here. Subsistence users of fish and wildlife resources is something that rarely comes up in the Lower 48 but is a common consideration in Alaska.”

Water plays a critical role in maintaining an ecological balance for humans and nature no matter where a person is in the world, Reidsma explains.

And as populations grow, the demand for clean water for industry and the public also grows, Dworian says.

“Hydrological services are in hot demand everywhere in the world,” Dworian says. “The increasing demand must be balanced with demands from agriculture, industrial and residential uses, and the environment, such as maintaining water quality and meeting the needs of fish and wildlife.”

Demand for services in Alaska has been strong and will likely remain that way for the indefinite future, Dworian says.

“Despite our climate, many areas of the state have access only to poor quality water due to accidents of geology or resource limitations,” Dworian says. “In addition, there are very strong competing demands for water, and the effects of climate change influence the availability of supply for human use.”