State, environmental agencies cooperating on road project

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004

A multimillion dollar road project in Homer is being cited as a model of cooperation between state transportation officials, the construction contractor and local environmental agencies, who are working together to ensure the road upgrade causes as little disruption to local creeks and streams as possible.

The project eventually will rebuild 12.2 miles of East End Road, a major collector connecting residential areas east of Homer to the city and the Sterling Highway. In the current phase, roughly 3.75 miles from downtown Homer to the intersection of Kachemak Drive is to be rebuilt and a separated bike path added.

The condition of the existing road is considered marginal and requires excessive maintenance, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. It is plagued by inadequate drain-age, lacks shoulders, and sightlines do not meet modern design standards. The cost of construction, right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation for the entire 12.2 miles from Homer to McNeil Canyon is estimated to exceed $25 million.

Rebuilding the road requires the excavation and reconstruction of sewer and water lines, culverts and storm drains, some deep in the ground. The route crosses several important streams that provide drainage from the bluff and hillside above Homer and its neighbor to the east, Kachemak City.

That makes assuring water quality during and after reconstruction of paramount interest to residents, city and state officials, and the contractor, QAP Inc. It was QAP that first requested DOT officials find someone to monitor water quality during construction.

"When we first started here, we found the quality of the water was not good," said QAP Superintendent Steve Spidal. "There was a lot of turbidity."

The terrain east of Homer has little gravel, a feature that acts to filter silt from water in other locations.

QAP, he said, "got a black eye" a few years ago when the company rebuilt Baycrest Hill, a portion of the Sterling Highway leading into Homer from the north. Environmental groups focused attention on the silt from that project that reached Kachemak Bay and sensitive habitats along the shore.

"We needed to protect ourself, somewhat," Spidal said. "It sounded like this (East End Road project) would be a high-profile job with the public."

What QAP needed was good baseline data showing the quality of water east of Homer before, during and after the project so that the company would not be trying to meet an unrealistic standard. Spidal noted that Mud Bay, an area along the base of the Homer Spit into which much of the East End Road-area drainage flows, didn't get that name by accident.

"We needed a baseline to show whoever that we are doing the best we can to try to mitigate pollution," Spidal said. "We are conscious of those things."

Gary Walklin, DOT project engineer, said QAP, with the aid of the state, contracted with the Homer Soil and Water District to do the water monitoring. The Homer-based Cook Inlet Keeper, which has a water-quality testing lab and an ongoing citizens' monitoring program that is several years old, is under contract to the district to perform just such services.

Joel Cooper, Keeper's research coordinator, called working with the district, the state and QAP "a great example" of cooperation.

"This is a really positive thing," he said. "One of the tools of monitoring is to mitigate the impacts (of such projects). It's been a great relationship."

Cooper said Walklin began consulting with Keeper this past winter. Keeper officials pointed out areas that needed protection and suggested ways to mitigate disruption during construction. Keeper was invited to the department's project open house in May, at which time Cooper said he suggested the state talk with the conservation district. That led to a contract for the district's services, and by extension, those of Keeper's lab, employees and volunteers.

A Citizens' Environmental Monitoring Program begun in the late 1990s has tested and cataloged numerous samples taken several times a year from local streams, creeks and rivers in the Cook Inlet Watershed, including those along the East End Road project route.

"Here you see cost-effectiveness at its finest," Cooper said. "Working with the Keeper and with the conservation district was a logical thing. Everything they've asked us to monitor is what the citizens' monitoring program already monitors water quality, turbidity, pH, temperature, conductivity and discharge."

That the project will have some impact on streams and creeks is obvious and unavoidable, Cooper said.

"But they are doing a good job keeping turbidity down. They are doing what they can."

Cooper said he's interested in watching the data throughout the course of the summer to see how things change. The recent spate of good weather has prevented one thing, however: observation of how a major rain event would impact the disrupted streams.

"Mother Nature has dealt us a great hand so far this year," Spidal said. "Overall, we are very happy with how the project is going."

Walklin said the ongoing sampling is providing erosion updates weekly and so far erosion control is working. The project, he added, is within design parameters and crews are making the effort to minimize runoff and set up erosion-control measures during in-stream work. This weekend he expects some torn-up areas to be reseeded.

"I applaud DOT and Gary (Walklin) in particular," Cooper said. "That's the way things ought to work."

Keeper's monitoring program, which has often struggled to make ends meet, depends heavily on its volunteer corps, local residents who have undergone rigorous training to ensure sampling meets scientific guidelines.

But the Cook Inlet Keeper also has an advocacy arm, one that works to defend the Cook Inlet Watershed. That has often put them at odds with state officials, state resource development policy and with major industries, some of which have histories of polluting the environment.

Earlier this month, Gov. Frank Murkowski slammed Keeper during an address in Soldotna over a recently released analysis of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation records that Keeper said demonstrated a poor record of enforcement of land and water environmental regulations. Murkowski called the Keeper report "rubbish."

Keeper has been a thorn in the side of developers, often urging adherence to specific regulatory requirements or calling for stricter guidelines. Cooper said there is nothing inconsistent in keeping tabs on development and contracting out Keeper monitoring services.

"Time and time again we have demonstrated that the advocacy program is totally separate from our monitoring program," he said. "The state is set up the same way. They have a monitoring program and an enforcement program."

Lindsay Winkler, watershed coordinator with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, said working directly with development projects is exactly what the district and Keeper have been looking to do, stressing the importance of working on projects funded by state and federal dollars and ensuring they occur with minimal damage to the environment.

"How we achieve that is definitely important to the people and to us," she said. "The Homer district sees this as a model (of cooperation), without question."

While the project is under way, drivers have had to put up with necessary delays. By and large, however, residents have been understanding and cooperative, project officials said.

"The public has been very patient with our work," Walklin said.

Spidal noted a few comments he heard when trees along the route were cleared, but when people were told a bike route would accompany the new road, attitudes quickly changed. He also said the project would increase safety and improve drainage, a major issue for east-enders who more than once have seen the roadway cut for days at a time because of flooding.

"The public has been excellent," Spidal said.

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