Kenai bluffs wash away, project closes in

3 feet a year

A 25-year-old Army Corps of Engineers document came with Gary Foster’s bluff-side property when he bought it in 1990 — a sort of buyers’ beware for the then Kenai resident, he said.

 

“We’ve been here 23 years. It’s always sloughed off,” Foster said about his family’s shrinking Riverview Drive yard. “Life on the beach is all sandy and dusty. It’s always been there. I think it’s been eroding forever.”

Homes along Toyon Way and Peninsula Drive — land also abutting the bluffs — respectively lost 20 and 30 feet of property to the beach last year, and, once, Foster and his wife had to rip their home off its foundation and roll it back 60 feet to escape the crumbling bluffs.

“There are businesses that are gone. There are streets that are gone … all during the time that this has been our priority,” Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said.

For more than 30 years, the now $41 million bluff erosion project has been Kenai’s number one priority. Now, after hundreds of homes have been affected, the city is the closest it’s ever been to construction along the mile-long stretch between the canneries and Old Town, he said.

But two major roadblocks remain — the Decision Document still needs a signature, and the necessary federal and state project funding has either lapsed or is nonexistent.

On June 8, Sen. Mark Begich and Koch walked the eroding section of North Beach, and Koch brought the senator up to speed on the project.

The Decision Document, or the final feasibility document, has been sitting on the desk of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy for almost two years awaiting her signature, Koch said.

However, Begich said change is on its way. Section 116 of the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010 — public law new to the project — authorizes Darcy to sign the document.

“It starts moving it again,” Begich said.

The document measures all four counts of the project: its national economic development benefits, regional benefits, social effects such as historic preservation, and environmental benefits, said David Martinson, project and program manager for the Corps’ Civil Works Branch.

He anticipates the Corps and Kenai will sign a cost-share agreement for the study in early 2014. The city and Corps would share the $640,000 in expected costs to finish the study.

The Corps also needs to complete another reconnaissance report, but Martinson expects that to be done by September.

Then, there is still the issue of federal funding, Martinson said. Project construction funds are not in President Barack Obama’s budget this fiscal year or FY2014, he said. Since federal legislation was stripped of earmarks — tags that reserve money for a specific purpose — Martinson said it is difficult to secure funding.

And, Koch said, the federal government has been pouring much of its funding into Mississippi and Hurricane Sandy relief; Alaskan coastal erosion projects see less attention.

Currently Kenai has in hand $12.5 million. Because the city is responsible for 35 percent of the total project cost, it will need re-appropriated an additional $2 million in state grants, he said.

“We have some issues to address, because the fuse on some of that state money has burned down,” he said.

The state had appropriated the funds in the past but, because the project sat stagnant for so long, those grants expired. Koch is confident the legislature will appropriate the funds again.

With all funding in place — federal and state — Martinson said construction could begin in 2015 or 2016. And in that two to three years, six to nine feet of Kenai could fall into the water, according to Corps estimates.

“It does a football field in a century,” Koch said.

During a city council meeting several years ago, Corps officials spoke to the city and its residents about the financial impacts of the project. The Corps weighed the project’s price tag against the economic loss that would occur if the bluff continued eroding for 50 additional years.

The Corps estimated a loss of about 150 feet of land in that time.

It is difficult to predict the money that would be lost from inaction, Koch said, but, as the erosion displaces more homes, eats more acres of land, and uproots more electric and gas lines, the impacts are bound to be significant.

“You factor all that in and you’re somewhere in the $100 million range of what gets lost in a 50-year (period),” he said.

The land under Vintage Point Manor would fall away, and so would a dozen buildings in a 5,000-foot stretch, he said.

And that isn’t the greatest monetary loss either — Koch said it is in the lost financial opportunity along the bluff.

“There’s no investment there,” he said. “Obviously there’s old slabs of buildings that have been removed. … If this project comes to fruition and that ongoing erosion is halted, there is no doubt in my mind we’ll see levels of investment in that area that are going to be really impressive.”

Overlooking Cook Inlet, the location is beautiful. There could be a surge in restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfasts along the bluffs, he said.

As it is now, businesses are selling their properties or buildings — they are not buying real estate. At least two bed and breakfasts are fleeing the receding bluffs, he said.

Once the remaining obstacles are resolved — the Decision Document is signed, several other studies are completed and federal and state funding are allocated — Koch said construction itself is not complicated.

According to the Corps’ Initial Design Document Report, 43 properties would be affected by construction. Their total assessed value is $2.75 million, according to December Kenai Peninsula Borough values.

Kenai would also have to buy five homes, most of which already sit just on the bluff’s edge. The city would either buy the homes and demolish them, or they would be moved as Foster’s home was.

Construction crews would then cut off the top of the bluff and dump it in on its lower three-quarters, lessening its steep angle, according to the Corps preliminary design document.

Rip-rap, or large rock, harvested from the borough’s quarry would line the bottom fourth of the new bluffs, blocking it of waves and abrasive shore-fast ice. The rock panoply would also collect any debris falling from the bluffs, Koch said.

Crews would etch a 15-foot pathway about three-quarters up into the bluff. It would have a safety railing for pedestrians, and Koch said it would catch the bluff debris instead of it washing out to sea.

It’s a simple project, he said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket science engineer to figure it out; it just takes 40 million bucks,” he said.

Now, 23 years after Foster and his wife bought their bluff property, his outlook has not changed. They knew the risks when they moved in; they knew they couldn’t fight it. They are just fortunate to live in such a beautiful location, Foster said.

“I didn’t measure. I didn’t think about it,” he said. “It’s kind of like if you’re pouring diesel fuel in your motor home — you better not think about it and just be glad you can afford it.”

 

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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