By David Lynn Grimes
For The Cordova Times
Prince William Sound, victim and survivor of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, exists side by side with the neighboring Copper River Delta. If the Sound is North America’s finest marine ecosystem, then the Delta is its wetlands equivalent. They are like two halves of a beating heart.
The Copper River Delta region — stretching from the Bering River country and Cape Suckling in the east all the way to Cordova and Prince William Sound in the west — is comprised of a vast set of contiguous wetlands and coastal rivers that drain into the North Pacific Ocean.
The Copper River is world-renowned as an archetypal wild salmon river, hosting some of the most highly prized salmon on earth. And its contiguous Delta wetlands in the Chugach National Forest represent by far the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the entire National Forest system.
Mineral-rich sediment-laden waters of the Copper, and its smaller companion rivers like the Bering, make an immediate right turn upon entering the North Pacific Ocean and are carried west by a coastal current towards Prince William Sound. Some of that water then flows into the Sound through Hinchinbrook Entrance and up into a gyre around the central Sound — fertilizing the ecosystem with iron and other nutrients and increasing ecosystem productivity — before exiting the Sound through its southwest passages and straits.
The Prince William Sound Science Center, created in the wake of the oil spill and serving as a primary research institute in the bioregion, sums up this remarkable interplay between the Copper River Delta and Prince Willian Sound simply by calling its newsletter “Delta Sound Connections.”
Here’s another connection. The oil that spilled into the Sound in 1989 from the ruptured Exxon Valdez supertanker had spent most of its last 150 miles in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, running parallel to the Copper River … like two rivers side by side, one with fish and one with oil. A pipeline spill today could easily flow into the Copper, down to the Delta, and then over into the Sound. Similarly, any industrial accident in the Delta region, from the Bering River in the east to Cordova in the west, could likewise affect the Sound.
In 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt created the Chugach National Forest primarily as a fish and forest preserve, and its eastern boundary was the Copper River. In 1909 Roosevelt extended the Forest boundary further east to include the entire Copper River Delta region all the way to the Bering River and Cape Suckling. Roosevelt did so to protect the Delta’s Bering River coalfields from deleterious development and monopoly control by the Robber Barons of the day.
One hundred years later we recognize the wisdom of Roosevelt’s conservation foresight — the health of fish and wildlife and their habitat on the Delta is essential to the health of Cordova’s subsistence and commercial fishing economies. Indeed, Cordova — situated right between the Delta and the Sound — might not have survived the economic and ecological mayhem of the oil spill in the Sound without a healthy Delta.
How can we further protect the Delta/Sound region? After public outcry the State of Alaska recently cancelled plans for Gulf of Alaska oil and gas leases in the Bering River/Controller Bay/Katalla region of the east Delta. And now we have the additional opportunity to retire the Bering River coalfields themselves and protect the Delta once and for all.
When the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC) was created to oversee Exxon’s $900 million civil settlement, the Council was given the mandate to restore the environmental health of the oil spill region, and restoration was to be done on an ecosystem basis. But when geographic boundaries were created for the sake of restoration, they were not drawn on an ecosystem basis—the restoration boundary arbitrarily ran down one side of the Copper River, leaving the eastern half of the Delta ecosystem completely off the map.
To fulfill its original mandate to protect and restore the oil spill region, EVOSTC restoration boundaries must represent the ecosystems themselves — Dear Trustee Council, please follow in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps and extend boundaries to include the entire Delta/Sound bioregion, all the way east to the Bering River and Cape Suckling … and then retire those coalfields in the name of restoration. Or as they say in the healing arts, first do no more harm.
The remarkable Delta and Sound are two halves of a beating heart. Let’s keep that heart beat healthy.
EVOSTC is receiving public comments on this issue until Dec. 16 at evostc.commentinput.com/?id=4UeBu.
David Grimes is a member of the advisory board of the Eyak Preservation Council, and a resident of Cordova.