NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2004 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Ship Creek Crack Down


Emily Adams
Savannah Cooper-Hughes
Brittany Huff
John Hill
Chris Pineiro


The Amazing Shrinking Team
Bartlett High School
25-500 N. Muldoon Rd.
Anchorage, AK 99506

Blue Crush team photo

Table of Contents

1.1 Abstract
1.2 Introduction
1.3 History of pollution
1.4 Types of pollution
1.5 Biotic community alteration
1.6 Chemical transportation process
1.7 Bio-magnification pathways
2.1 Reduction of atmospheric pollution
2.2 Reduction of riverine nonpoint source pollutants
2.3 Reduction of oceanic pollutants
2.4 Reduction of biotic influences
2.5 Oil spill responses
3.1 Summary
3.1 Figures
3.2 References

1.1 Abstract

Ship Creek begins in the Chugach Mountains, travels through two military bases, passes the downtown and industrial areas, goes through the railroad yard and finally comes to an end at the Port of Anchorage. Development at Ship Creek began in 1914, which was also when people started to dump waste into the water. This continues to be a problem today. Most of the pollutants in Ship Creek are a product of the actions of humans. The hatcheries and power plant cooling systems produce a majority of the thermal pollution. The PCBs that pollute the creek come from industrial products and zones. Fecal matter enters the river from storm water, ponds, wetlands, stables and surface runoff. It produces Fecal Coliform Bacteria. Biotic community alterations come from obstructions such as the three dams and a culvert bridge in Ship Creek. Biological magnification occurs when slowly decaying organic materials, such as PCB's, accumulate in the body fat of animals. Although it is not a major problem to the Ship Creek ecosystem yet, it could easily become very serious. There are many solutions to reducing the contamination of Ship Creek; some are simple, such as limiting driving by the use of public transportation or carpooling. It is also very important that, in case of an oil spill, Anchorage have a plan to keep the oil out of Ship Creek. Other solutions are complex, dealing with nonpoint source pollution and the driving forces of economic development, which is often counterproductive to the environmental health of the watershed and riparian area.

1.2 Introduction

Ship Creek is an urban stream, which begins in the alpine tundra in the Chugach Mountains. It continues down and drains the watershed into Cook Inlet, a part of the Pacific Ocean. On the way it runs through to two military bases, Fort Richardson Army Base and Elmendorf Air Force Base and along the Glenn Highway. It goes by downtown, an industrial area, through the railroad yard, between the Port of Anchorage and the major commercial area. (Figure 1)

1.3 Historical Pollution

Historically, Ship Creek was where Anchorage began in 1914. (Tower,1999). Even before that, the Dena'ina Indians used the creek as an important source for fish. It was so rich in stickleback, or needlefish, that the native name for Ship Creek was Stickleback Creek. It was also home to about 2,000 Chinook, 1,500 coho, 5,000 to 20,000 pink and some sockeye salmon.

In 1915 the native Indians and 2,000 people were moved out of the Ship Creek area. And about 150 businesses and 4,000 more people were established on the plateaus north and south of Ship Creek because the Alaska Railroad was to be based at Ship Creek. The people would dump garbage and sewage into the outgoing tide, and it would come back in, twice a day, because the tides are semidiurnal. (Castro and Huber, 1997) By 1920 the marshy areas of lower Ship Creek had been filled and the flow was altered. (ADF&G, 2000; Tower, 1999)

In Anchorage's early years, the anadromous fish were distributed equally throughout the watershed, but in 1942 when a dam was constructed at upper Elmendorf people began to exploit and harass the fish. Ten years later, two more dams were built. One, the Chugach Electric Dam, was near the head of the tide, and the other, a water supply dam in the upper reaches. By 1963, the salmon count, which had once been in the thousands, was now less than one hundred. In 1966, Chinook and coho salmon were stocked into Ship Creek for the first time. Fine particulate sediments from the Elmendorf golf course began eroding into Ship Creek in 1971. Between 1950 and 1999 over one mile of lower Ship Creek's stream length was lost. This caused higher water velocity and loss of rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon. Most of the salmon in Ship Creek today come from fisheries. (ADF&G, 2002)

From the time people populated the area, Ship Creek was in trouble.

1.4 Types of Pollution

People are still the cause of most of Ship Creek's problems. Almost all of the pollutants are a result of human activities. Types of pollution that affect Ship Creek are thermal pollution, petroleum, PCBs and other organic compounds, turbidity, sediments, and fecal coliform bacteria (DEC Draft, 2002). There are also several biological alterations of the natural path of the river (NMFS).

Thermal Pollution

Thermal inputs include two military hatcheries, and power plant cooling systems. One of the hatcheries is located near the Boniface entrance on the Air Force base, while the other one is located near the Post Road entrance of the Army Base.

Ship Creek water is used to cool the power plants and is then used by the hatcheries for the fish pens. After it is used, it is cooled off in holding tanks until 14°C, then it is released into Ship Creek. (DEC, 2003) This temperature is much higher than the natural temperature of the water, which is 4°C. This causes damage to both the habitat and the inhabitants. Food for the fish is covered, as are incubating eggs, vision is restricted, and fish gills become irritated. As for the habitat itself, the woody debris is lost, along with rearing habitat, wetlands, and connections to the watershed. The released water also adds detritus to the water, which increases the organic matter. This potentially causes an increase to the sediment in the substrate and further destroys the bedding area. (DEC, 2003)

Petroleum, PCBs and other Organic Compounds

All petroleum and PCBs come from the industrial products and zones. Petroleum products and PCBs are considered to be persistent organic compounds because it circulates in the environment for years and even decades. PCB stands for polychlorinated biphenyls, which are slow to deteriorate from the environment or the body. Other examples of persistent organic compounds are crude oil, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), pentachloroethane, pentachloroethylene, propylene glycol, ballast water (containing oil) and gasoline. (

Boltman (pers.comm) noted that there are twenty-four known outfalls that exist within Municipality of Anchorage's (MOA) storm water network in the lower Ship Creek drainage. Existing structural controls include seven oil and grease separators, two snow dumps, and one channel improvement...The ADEC's (Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation) Contaminated Sites database lists 193 contaminated sites within the Ship Creek drainage basin. Eighty-seven sites are located on city, state, or privately owned land within the MOA, sixty-five sites are on Elmendorf Air Force Base, and forty-one sites are on Fort Richardson. The source of contamination at most of these sites is spillage or leakage of petroleum products.

Since 1995, there were eleven "significant releases" of petroleum or other organic compounds released in the Ship Creek watershed and Port of Anchorage Area. (Table 1 shows significant releases of petroleum and other organic compounds into Ship Creek watershed and surrounding Cook Inlet. (10/95-7/02) (Figure 2)

As a result of the 1964 earthquake, 1,000,000 gallons of petroleum leaked out of two tanks, spilling the petroleum everywhere. But since the spill wasn't cleaned up in time, most seeped into the ground. The petroleum that was absorbed is now finally making its way, through ground water, into Ship Creek. (Elred, pers. comm.)


Turbidity, or cloudiness, is affected by the amount of runoff in a specific part of the year. There is a small glacier at the headwaters of Ship Creek but it has less than 1% effect on the water. (DEC,2003) Runoff is the main source of any cloudiness upstream. In the first half of the stream, the creek is shallow, and turbidity is not a problem.

In the center portion of Ship Creek, the main source of turbidity is runoff and nonpoint source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution cannot be tracked like its counterpart because it is usually runoff. Waste is entering the creek through storm drains, but the storm drains are not the direct source. The waste came from all over the city before it went into the storm drains and then into the creek. Unlike point source pollution, it is extremely difficult to stop nonpoint source pollution.

Riverbank erosion from human activities and poor management also causes soil to add to the sedimentation of the river. (Elred, pers. comm.) (Figures 2-6)

At the mouth of Ship Creek, the creek is affected by tidal patterns that bring in glacial silt that makes the water murky and the silt blocks the sun. This prevents benthic organisms from surviving because there is no phytoplankton. The ecosystem at the mouth of the creek consists of grass on silt flats as the producer, which (in this case there is very little grass due to the use of these flats as an industrial area). The grass has insects, which live on them and use them as their food source and are, therefore, the consumers. Some species of fish may be found in these areas eating the insects that fall into the water, thus making the fish the secondary consumer. Other than this small food chain the silt is not a habitat for other organisms. (Peltz, pers. comm. Bolton, pers. comm.)

The turbidity of Ship Creek is monitored in two places, behind the Comfort Inn Hotel (Figure 4), and behind the Anchorage Waterways Council Office on 301 W. Ship Creek Avenue. Figure 7 shows giant fluctuations in turbidity due to runoff and wet weather draining local neighborhoods of dirt and debris and dumping it into the river. It is a good indication that the creek is ill (Anchorage Waterways Council).

Fecal Coliform Bacteria

Fecal coliform bacteria is natural in any habitat, but in increased by the presence of any type of fecal matter that enters the river from storm water, ponds, wetlands, stables and surface runoff. By itself coliform bacteria doesn't damage anything, it is only a indicator of fecal material. It can come from humans, dogs, and fish, but mostly by land animals that live around the area. Some minimal fecal coliform bacteria was found in the headwaters due to minute amounts of fecal matter from birds and moose. During the spring breakup time, water runoff flow from throughout Anchorage carrying feces of pets and migratory birds enters storm water drainage systems and floods into Ship Creek. Shortly after entering the creek, the matter settles to the bottom, and the bacteria population explodes. Bacteria attaches to the sediments, which also increase at this time of year. (Bolton, pers. comm.)

The monitoring stations also have picked up large fluctuations of bacterial counts. This is a direct indication of the health of the creek. (Figure 8, Anchorage Waterways Council)

1.5 Biotic Community Alterations

Biotic community alterations include obstructions such as the three dams in Ship Creek: Elmendorf Hatchery Dam, Fort Richardson Hatchery Dam, and Knik Arm Power Plant (KAPP) Dam. In addition to these dams, which are blocking the natural flow of the creek, there is a culvert bridge in the tidal area of the creek near its mouth that alters the flow of the tides and more specifically delays water from draining out of the riverbed. As the tide comes up, the water is delayed but eventually meets equilibrium on both sides of the bridge just in time for the tide to go out where it is delayed once more on the way out. This happens twice a day. Also, Cook Inlet experiences the second highest tidal range in North America: 37 feet. This allows the silt to settle and built up much more than it would if the river was flowing in its natural path (NMFS, 2002).

Not only are these culverts causing silt build up but the road that they support is and has been eroding away. This road is highly used and is the only access road to the Port of Anchorage's public small boat launch. It has gone from a two-lane road with shoulders to barely a single lane. This erosion is causing more fill to go into the creek and the culverts. These culverts are also decapitated causing the structure of the road to be in question. There are fears here that the sewer line and, more important, the jet fuel line located within the structure will be compromised. This is a threat to the coastal and tidal waters in and around the creek's mouth. If the culverts were to collapse then the line would break causing devastating pollution. (Peltz, pers. comm.)

The dams delay the flow of the creek also. The most significant impact they have is found during the annual salmon runs up this stream. The first dam, the Knik Arm Power Plant (KAPP) Dam, has a salmon ladder that allows fish to reach the waters above it. However, the other two do not allow any passage and block these fish from miles of creek where they once laid their eggs and reproduced. (Figure 9)

1.6 Chemical transport processes

Carbon dioxide from burning garbage and engines mixes with rain and snow to form carbonic acid. This creates acid rain conditions. Other chemicals transport systems include oxidation in metals and ions. (Moser, pers. comm.)

1.7 Biomagnification pathways

Biological magnification is the accumulation in body tissues of certain chemicals such as industrial PCBs or heavy metals like mercury. The higher along the food chain an organism is the greater the concentration of the contaminants, sometimes to toxic levels. In Ship Creek, biomagnification has yet to take serious effect but there are significant signs of contamination of PCBs up to 251 ppm. As with the whales in other parts of the world, with the rate of pollution ever increasing, it may not be long before animal population in our surroundings dramatically begins to decrease. The Cook Inlet population of Beluga whales is decreasing (ADF&G, 2002). As the levels of contamination increase, additional deformities begin to show and signs of less fat on offspring decrease survival.

Invertebrates in Ship Creek include mayflies, stone flies, caddis flies, midges, black flies, crane flies, aquatic worms, aquatic mites, and flatworms. If washed into the ocean, these are invertebrates consumed by salmon and crustaceans. Flies will consume various insects, including each other. If they remain in the river, they are consumed by salmon and other fishes.

Birds present in the area include surface feeding ducks (mallard, green-winged teal), diving ducks (common golden eye, harlequin), dippers, raptors, chickadees, warblers, woodpeckers, thrushes, magpies, ravens, waxwings, blackpolls, redpolls.

Fish species present in the lower creek include chinook, chum, coho, pink, sockeye, arctic grayling, dolly varden, rainbow trout. Because salmon spend most of their lives out at sea and are relatively short-lived, they will not be as dramatically affected by contaminants.

The most likely animals to be affected by biomagnification are those in permanent residence, or those who depend on the river as a food source. The fish would include rainbows and dollys, and the birds would include dippers, ducks and raptors. (Figure 10) Invertebrates, though small, are too far down the food chain to accumulate much effect.

The consequences of biomagnification are deformities, and death in offspring from individuals who are more than 50% contaminated. Endocrine disruptors, substances that interfere with the normal functioning of the hormone system, have recently become a huge concern in other states. They can compromise the proper development of organisms, which causes reproductive, behavioral, immune system and neurological problems. Also it has been known to start the development of cancer. These problems usually do not show up until later in life. (

Ship Creek trophic system begins with the photosynthetic autotrophs, organisms and plants found throughout the river and its surroundings. Primary consumers on the second level are insects, crustaceans, and small or larval fishes, which feed on plankton, algae, land plants and micro-particles. They are eaten by secondary consumers. Carnivores and omnivores, are salmon, dolly varden, rainbow trout, and various shore birds that inhabit the wetlands. Finally the top predators are raptors and beluga (in the ocean) that consume the larger fishes. The final step in recycling nutrients is accomplished by bacteria and fungi, which decompose the remains of all the animals and plants after they die. Table 2 shows the wide variety of organisms found in Ship Creek.

2.1 Reduction of Atmospheric Pollution

To reduce the atmospheric pollution, general guidelines include:

  • If you are a smoker, use air purifiers to reduce CO.
  • To reduce carbon monoxide, do not burn synthetic materials.
  • To reduce lead, properly dispose of lead batteries, fishing lures, bullets, ceramics, mini blinds, water pipes, and hair dye.
  • To eliminate ground-level ozone do not pour cleaners into storm pipes or any type of drains.
  • Reduce the burning of coals and fossil fuels.
  • Limit the use of paint and hair spray.
  • Have the air conditioning in all pre-1995 model vehicles replaced from the dangerous CFC R-12 to the safer R-134a.
  • To eliminate sulfur dioxide industries need to limit the burning of coal, and find a cleaner process of producing paper and smelting metals.


2.2 Reduction of Riverine Nonpoint Source Pollution

The nations leading cause of water degradation is nonpoint specific pollution, generally from household runoff. We as humans can prevent this collective source of pollution by making cost effective actions to improve the quality of the runoff we produce and lessen the amounts.

  • By limiting pavement, water seeps into the soil rather than runs through the storm drain system into the creek.
  • Dispose of animal feces appropriately from your yard, street and park.
  • Properly remove and dispose of oil, gas and antifreeze.
  • Patrol parks and streets of pet droppings. (Elred, pers. comm.)

2.3 Reduction of oceanic pollutants

To reduce oceanic pollution, humans need to:

  • Stop putting waste pipes directly into the ocean or streams.
  • Put toxic waste into the dump.
  • Recycle plastic at Carrs or Fred Meyers.
  • Recycle used motor oil.
  • Use nontoxic cleaning products, such as vinegar or baking soda, that don't harm aquatic life.
  • Use a drop cloth to clean and maintain boats away from water.
  • Clean up paint dust and chips to prevent them from going into water.
  • Carefully fuel your boats and engines.
  • Discard worn motor parts into proper receptacles, or donate to machine shops.
  • Keep motors well-lubricated and tuned to reduce leaks and improve efficiency.


2.4 Oil spill response in Cook Inlet

In the event of an oil spill at the Port of Anchorage, it would be vital for the riparian and riverine ecosystems to keep the oil from entering Ship Creek. Geographic Response Strategies (GRS) that are designed to protect Cook Inlet coastal environments including the Municipality of Anchorage. GRS focuses on limiting the impact an oil spill would have in a specified area. These studies are very important, because if response plans are made before a spill occurs then the saving of the environment will be much easier than a cleanup after it happened. Because of budget limitations, GRS can only develop responses for certain sites. Extremely environmentally sensitive sites, sites in risk of a "water borne spill," and sites that can successfully be protected with existing technologies are at the top of the list, such as Ship Creek (ADEC, 2003). Ship Creek qualifies because of its close location to the Port of Anchorage and its sensitive biological habitat.

2.5 Reduce biotic influences

To restore Ship Creek to it's natural pathway and chemistry, people should:

  • Remove culvert and dams to restore the natural flow of the river.
  • Maintain proper septic systems.
  • Never dump chemicals or thick substances down the drain because it may change or negate the breakdown process in the septic tank.
  • Support the Anchorage Waterways Council in their efforts to "Unplug Ship Creek" both by volunteering time for their annual creek cleanup efforts in the spring and lobbying for healthy environmental changes in local policies in water allotment and land use.

3.1 Summary

In order to clean up Ship Creek companies and industries as well as individuals need to be thoughtful and respectful of the environment, and be aware of what they can do to reduce the pollution. Although simple actions cannot eliminate pollution they can dramatically reduce it. Water for drinking has to be collected from continually higher places upstream to avoid the polluted lower stream contaminants. Daily use by Anchorage residents is up to 24 million gallons per day. ( By cleaning up after pets and properly removing oil, anti freeze, and other chemicals that are commonly found in households, Anchorage residents can reduce the effects of pollutants on Ship Creek. But it is with the industries that the future of Ship Creek lies. The sad part is that because Ship Creek lies in the heart of a major economic zone (industry, railroad, and sport fishing) the necessary changes needed to fix Ship Creek will be difficult due to the commitment of private funds and political drive. People will have to make it happen.

3.1 Figures

Figure 1.

Fig. 1, Ship Creek watershed monitoring site

Ship Creek watershed

Ship Creek Watershed and Downtown area

Figure 2.

Fig. 2, river bank erosion

River Bank Erosion (Anchorage Waterways Council)

Figure 3.

Fig. 3, culvert discharge into Ship Creek

Turbid Water–Nonpoint Source Culvert Discharge into Ship Creek "C Street Bridge" (DEC Division of Air and Water Quality)

Figure 4.

Fig. 4, nonpoint source pollution

Nonpoint Source Pollution Runoff Water–Ship Creek, S. Bank E. of Comfort Inn. (DEC Division of Air and Water Quality)

Figure 5.

Fig. 5, nonpoint source pollution

Nonpoint Source Pollution Runoff Water–Ship Creek "C" Street Bridge (DEC Division of Air and Water Quality)

Figure 6.

nonpoint source pollution

Nonpoint Source Pollution Runoff Water–Ship Creek Storm Drain (DEC Division of Air and Water Quality)

Figure 7.

Fig. 7, Turbidity of Ship Creek

Figure 8.

Fig. 8, Fecal Coliform Bacteria

Figure 9.

Fig. 9, dams and water diversion sites

Location of Dams and Water Diversion Sites on Lower Ship Creek (Click to view larger image.)

Figure 10.

Fig. 10, food web for Ship Creek

Food Web for Ship Creek

Table 1. Significant Releases of Petroleum and Other Organic Compounds Into Ship Creek Watershed and Surrounding Cook Inlet (10/95-7/02).


Spill Name

Spill Number


Ship Creek Anchorage School District



Alaska Railroad



Elmendorf Hardstand



Elmendorf 10" Flight Line



Elmendorf AERO Club



Alaska Railroad Spills



Alaska Railroad Anchorage Yard Roundhouse



Tesoro Ethanol Anchorage



Tesoro Pipeline Terminal–Anchorage



Cook Inlet Mystery Sheen



Cook Inlet Mystery Sheen


(E.P.A. Appendix B: Significant Releases FY 1996-2002)

Table 2. Ship Creek Species List

Invertebrates: Insects


May Flies (Ephemeropteraa)
-(Blue Winged alive) Bactis
-(Pale Morning dun) Ephermerella

-(Slate winged alive) Prunella
-(Small Yellow) Epearus

Stone Flies (Pleceptera)
-Zapada (little Brown)
-Chloraperlidae (little Green)

-Isoperla (little Yellow)

Caddis Flies
-Glossosoma (Saddlecase maker)
Limnephilidae (Northern case maker)

-Brachycanteus (logcabin case maker)
-Rhyacophila (Predacious)

-Oliochaeta (Aquatic worm)
-Turbellaia (Flatworm)

-Acari (Aquatic mite)

-Chiromidae (Midge)
-Tipulidae (Crane Fly)

-Simulidae (Black Fly)

Birds: Ducks


(Surface Feeders)
Green Winged Teal

(Diving Feeders)
Common Golden Eye

Dippers Water-oozle, feeds on surface by use of elongated beak.


Birds: Raptors


Bald Eagles
BlackCapped Bored Chickadees

Sharp Shinned Hawks
Belted King Fisher

Birds: Blackbirds


-Wax Wings

-Chinook salmon
-Chum salmon
-Coho salmon
-Pink salmon
-Sockeye salmon
-Arctic Grayling
-Dolly Varden
-Rainbow trout

Birds: Warblers


-Townsend wardber
-Woodpeckers, Downy, hairy, Northern three-toed
-Yellow-Rumped Warbler
-Yellow Warbler
-Orange Crowned


3.2 References

Personal Communication

Bob Moser. November 2003. Conversations between Bob Moser, Chemistry Instructor, Amateur Birder, Bartlett High School, and Savannah Cooper-Hughes of Bartlett High School., December 2003. Conversation between Bob Moser and Brittany Huff of Bartlett High School.

Laura Eldred, ADEC Division of Air & Water Quality, Nonpoint Source Water Pollution Control Program, 555 Cordova, Anchorage, AK 99501, (907) 269-1065. Conversations with Savannah Cooper-Hughes of Bartlett High School.

Lewis Howard, Superfund Site Manager, ADEC, 555 Cordova, Anchorage, AK 99501, (907) 269-7552. Conversations with Leesa Wingo of Bartlett High School.

Megan Bolton, Ship Creek Unplugged Program Director, Anchorage Waterways Council, P.O. Box 241774, Anchorage, AK 99524-1774, (907) 743-1052. Conversations with Savannah Cooper-Hughes of Bartlett High School.

Peltz, Larry. December 2003. Conversations between Larry Peltz of the National Marine Fsheries Service and John Hill of Bartlett High School.

Electronic Resources

Books and pamphlets

ADF&G, It Takes A Healthy Watershed To Raise A Fish, State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game H&R Division, June 2002.

Armstrong, Robert, Guide to the Birds of Alaska, Anchorage, AK, Northwest Publishing Company, 1980.

Castro, P., Huber, M. Marine Biology 2nd ed., Boston, MA, McGraw Hill, 1997.

Gay,Kathlyn, Air Pollution;, New York, Impact Publishing, 1991.

Talen, Maria. Ocean Pollution. San Diego, CA, Lucent Books, Inc. 1991.

Tower, Elizabeth; Anchorage: From Its Humble Origins as a Railroad Construction Camp. Seattle, Epicenter Press, 1999.

Scientific papers

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Geographic Response Strategies for Cook Inlet: Spill Prevention and Emergency Response Program. State of Alaska. 2003.

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Ship Creek Water Quality Assessment Draft Report, State of Alaska. Not yet published.

Frenzel, Steven, Selected Organic Compounds and Trace Elements in Streambed Sediments and Fish Tissues, Cook Inlet Basin, Alaska, Water-Resources Investigation Report 00-4004, National Water-Quality Assessment Program, Anchorage, U.S.G.S., 2000.

National Marine Fisheries. Ship Creek Culvert Removal Project Draft Environmental Assessment. HDR Alaska, Inc. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration & Municipality of Anchorage. July 2002.

Significant Releases of Petroleum and Other Organic Compounds Into Ship Creek Watershed and Surrounding Cook Inlet (10/95-7/02) Environmental Protection Agency.

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