Bluff collapse causes headache for homeowners

That sinking feeling

For three years Gary and Darlene Kernan said they have watched water collect on their bluff property during heavy rainfall and each spring when the snow melted.

 

It was a nuisance, watching the water creep up their lawn and into the garage, but they didn’t expect that would all end as drastically as it did three weeks ago when the water finally overwhelmed their lawn and found its way into the Cook Inlet — taking about 50 feet of their back yard with it in the process.

But, the collapse of the bluff is just the beginning of the Kernan’s problems as the process to shore up their yard can involve multiple regulatory agencies, permits and months of waiting before anything can happen.

“What’s going to happen is it’s just going to keep giving way, giving way. Every spring it’ll collapse some more. We had a nice place and now we don’t have a nice place, we have a dangerous place,” Gary Kernan said. “Once you start the erosion, it won’t stop.”

The collapse

The Kernans share a fenceline with CH2M Hill just off the Kenai Spur Highway and the water flows onto the Kernans’ property during times of heavy rainfall.

When their bluff collapsed around midafternoon on Sept. 19, Darlene said she ran over to the company’s gates and asked for help to alleviate the water flow, fearing the couple’s property would continue to collapse during the heavy rains.

The family’s gazebo, once several feet from the edge of the property, was within a foot of the sagging cliff face, and Darlene wanted to make sure it didn’t follow the piles of dirt tumbling down onto the beach.

“This is our livelihood,” she said as she walked along her back yard property where orange cones and large signs warn people away from the edge. “This is how we make our income and that’s dangerous. I don’t even want my daughter over near that area. How do you know it isn’t going to fall out from underneath you? You can’t.”

As she spoke, Kernan’s voice broke several times.

“You can step over here and feel the vibrations of the water going over the bluff,” she said.

The Kernans operate a lodging business and rent portions of their home to clients as well as turnaround employees from local oil companies.

Several people stood by and watched as two employees from CH2M Hill returned to the company’s lot after hours to redirect the water onto their own property.

Gary McMillan, ONM manager at the company’s Kenai property, said the crew dug trenches to divert the water away from the Kernan’s property. They put a pump in that pumped the water into the vegetation on the back of their property.

Even that process didn’t mitigate all of the damage; Darlene said a portion of the company’s bluff collapsed as well.

After the storm

Diverting storm water from an industrial area technically requires a permit from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, one that CH2M Hill would need to apply for if they were to keep a pump on the property to permanently divert water away from the Kernan’s property.

Chris Foley, compliance manager for the DEC, said the department tends to give people some leeway during flood events and wouldn’t normally go after a company for diverting rainwater during an emergency, especially if it were away from a residential area.

“Most of the storm water conveyance systems were never designed to handle the sort of rainwater we’re seeing,” Foley said. “It has to go somewhere. Normally this wouldn’t be an activity that would be permitted, you can discharge stormwater but you have to treat it first.”

In the meantime, CH2M Hill’s insurance company is meeting with the Kernan’s, Gary said, to determine what, if anything, can be done to prevent further erosion.

Dave Casey, Kenai Field Office Supervisor at the Army Corps of Engineers, said certain types of bluff erosion mitigation work would need a permit from the Corps.

The Corps issues two types of permits that would apply in the Kernan’s situation. One is a section 10 permit which Casey said applies when a structure, dredge or filler is going to be built below the mean high water mark. The other is a section 404 permit which applies when a material is put in below the high tide line.

The high tide line is at the high tide of record over about an 18-year period, minus the storm surge, while the mean high water mark is an average of all the high tides usually in about the same time period, Casey said.

The permitting process through can take a long time, but Casey said there are certain kinds of permits that are expedited.

“We have a permit called a nationwide permit for bank stabilization that people could possibly qualify for,” he said. “It’s a really common permit on the Kenai River. There are literally hundreds of property owners along the river that have that permit. It’s for projects that have minimal adverse affects on the aquatic environment.”

The expedited review process for that type of permit typically takes about a month to 45 days, Casey said.

In the meantime, the Kernan’s are keeping everyone away from their bluff and lamenting the low spot that caused the trouble in the first place.

“It should have lasted through my lifetime, my husband’s and my daughter’s,” Darlene said as she pointed at the gaping hole in her yard. “That’s ridiculous and it shouldn’t have happened.”

 

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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