When it comes to the bluff along the mouth of the Kenai River, the city of Kenai is well versed in the tactic of hurry up and wait.
The city is in wait mode as studies are carried out that will determine the fate of plans to build a bluff stabilization project on the north bank of the river mouth. According to Patrick Fitzgerald, study manager with the Alaska division of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the studies are on schedule.
"I think it's proceeding fairly well," he said. "... We have been doing the work, and it seems to be proceeding smoothly."
The city has gone through several rounds of discussions and studies about implementing some form of bluff stabilization project over the past few decades, but those efforts have not yet come to fruition.
It is estimated that the section of bluff framing the north bank of the mouth of the river erodes at a rate of three feet per year. This slowly chips away at a particularly valuable piece of property the city of Kenai owns atop the bluff the so-called "Millennium Square" area of land between the senior citizens center and Bridge Access Road that it does not dare market without some sort of assurance that the bluff isn't going to erode out from under any new development.
After another round of efforts on the city's part in the past few years including holding public comment meetings, having engineering plans drawn up, coordinating with various government agencies and securing government funding the city has nothing more to do on the proposed project but wait for the outcome of the studies.
The city would like to build a mile-long sea wall along the north bank of the Kenai River from from Kenai Dunes Park at the mouth of the river to Pacific Star Seafoods on Bridge Access Road. The wall would be made of armor rock, boulders ranging from 500 to 10,000 pounds layered on top of smaller filter rock, and include a paved, scenic hiking and biking trail built atop the wall.
In order for that to happen, however, the city must get state and federal agency approval and permits for construction in the environmentally sensitive and ecologically important Kenai River estuary area. Before those agencies would sign off on the city's bluff stabilization project, they required more information on what effects the project may have on the river and estuary area.
That's where the U.S. Corps of Engineers comes in. The city lobbied for federal funds to conduct the studies the state and federal agencies required, and $500,000 of federal money was awarded to the Corps to complete an environmental assessment of the project.
That assessment is under way and includes four different areas of study a sedimentary portion that looks at how the dunes of the Kenai River form and what effects building a sea wall in the mouth of the river could have on those dunes and the river channel; a hydrology portion that will look at water movement in the river, including overland flow coming down the river bank and tidal flow going upstream during high tides; an engineering portion that looks at what's causing the bluff to erode and ways to stabilize the face of the bluff; and a biology portion that looks at the birds, fish and mammals that spend time around the mouth of the river and how building a sea wall may affect them.
Portions of those studies started this winter or are being conducted now, by the Corps itself and other agencies the Corps is contracting with, according to Fitzgerald.
Benthic sampling, in which researchers collect mud samples to look for life in it, has been done.
"So far we haven't found much living in the mud," Fitzgerald said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has collected water samples to test for salinity and will do ongoing fish studies. Bird studies were done during the spring and will be ongoing to see what types of birds can be found at the river mouth in different seasons and how long they stay.
River-bottom sediment samples have been taken to get a better idea of what the bottom of the river looks like, and further sediment sampling should be completed by fall, Fitzgerald said.
Other studies are planned for the summer. In June, field work for a river survey, which will define a cross-section of the river from the bluff line across the river channel to the tidal flats, will be done.
There will be some hydraulic studies done on about a half-mile stretch of river, Fitzgerald said. Once the river survey data is collected the Corps will create a hydraulic model by mid-July that will mimic existing conditions in the river so they can test what effects different types of river bank stabilization strategies might have on the hydraulic characteristics of the river.
While some sampling will be wrapped up this summer, many studies, especially biology studies, include year-round data collection.
"A lot of this is to study more the long-term use of the river," Fitzgerald said. "We finished the spring work. Spring has come and gone. We collected all the data that would be applied to spring use of the river, but (studies like) the bird surveys entail the full year. We still need summer, fall and winter."
Fitzgerald said a fair amount of the $500,000 allocated for the assessment has been expended so far, but running out of money for the studies is not a concern because the studies were planned based on the amount of money available.
"What we've done is tailored the study to how much (money) we've got to work with," he said.
A point of concern has been that Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision to reorganize the Alaska Depart-ment of Fish and Game may delay the completion of the assessment because Fish and Game is supposed to conduct several of the studies. Fitzgerald said the reorganization hasn't affected personnel doing the field work, so he doesn't anticipate a problem there.
Fitzgerald said the Corps plans to have a draft report of the assessment done by next summer.
Until then, the city will have to continue to wait.
"We really have to have a permit before we can go do anything else, and there is no money budgeted for us to proceed at all at this time," said City Manager Linda Snow. "It's really in the hands of the Corps of Engineers, and hopefully we will get our permit and hopefully we will get funding to complete the project."
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