Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of articles about the problems the city of Kenai faces as the bluff overlooking the Kenai River erodes at a pace of 3 feet per year.
The city of Kenai boasts amazing views of Cook Inlet and the mouth of the Kenai River from atop the Kenai bluff, where onlookers can watch fishing boats work in the river, see beluga whales feeding on fish and gaze at the snow-capped volcanoes.
For being such an aesthetic asset, the bluff has posed a problem for the city for the last 50 years.
The problem is that the bluff is slowly, inexorably eroding away at an average rate of 3 feet per year.
"This is the biggest single problem facing the city of Kenai right now," said Kenai Mayor John Williams.
In the past 50 years, the bluff has receded 150 feet, according to a study done by engineering consultants hired by the city. The erosion already has claimed some buildings, bluff-front lots, a portion of Mission Avenue five years ago and a sewer line that the city had to move last year.
More structures are in danger of being condemned and a water line may have to be moved relatively soon.
Williams said he was once told by an expert that the bluff would continue to erode to the Kenai Mall parking lot.
At 3 feet per year, it would take a few lifetimes to erode that far, but if left unchecked, ultimately, it would. Eventually, all the houses, churches, apartment complexes and businesses along the bluff, the historic Old Town district and public buildings like the Kenai Senior Citizens Center and the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center will be lost unless the erosion is stopped.
Without some sort of bluff stabilization program, not only will the city lose that property, it also can't afford to develop prime real estate along the bluff, like Millennium Square -- the area of land between the senior citizens center and Bridge Access Road.
"I cannot, in good faith, go out and market Millennium Square if I cannot guarantee the stability of the bluff," Williams said. "I cannot expand senior housing or put more money into senior development programs in good faith without stability of that bluff. A major economic development program has been on hold for a long time, one reason being lack of stabilization of bluff."
The question of whether anything should be done to stop erosion is one that comes up whenever the city makes an attempt to combat the problem of its disappearing bluff. Erosion is a natural process, after all -- one that was happening long before the city of Kenai ever existed.
For at least the past 50 years, the city has taken the stance that it wants to stop, or at least slow down, erosion and has made several attempts of varying success to that end. Most of these attempts have been in the form of studies and proposals. No actual structural work has been done to stabilize the bluff.
In 1998, the city began its most ambitious bluff erosion mitigation project to date, comprised of studies and design plans for a sea wall and coastal trail. It commissioned an engineering firm in Anchorage, Peratrovich, Nottingham and Drage Inc., to do a study on bluff erosion for $5,000. The city's eventual goal was to build a sea wall that would protect about a mile of the bluff, starting at Pacific Star Seafoods on Bridge Access Road and running west to the mouth of the river.
The original concept grew to incorporate a design for a coastal trail along the base of the bluff. The cost for the project was estimated at $10 million. Williams estimated the project would save $20 million in property on the bluff.
In 1999, the city commissioned the engineering firm to do a preliminary study on the sea wall project for $50,000. In 2000, the council approved a $70,000 expenditure for further study, $62,000 of which went to the engineering firm.
Several factors were looked at in the studies, including ways to stabilize the bluff, the economic feasibility of those options and the possible environmental impacts such a project would have. A study also was conducted by the University of Anchorage on sediment transport in the mouth of the Kenai River. In 2001, another $20,000 was appropriated by the council for the engineering firm to conduct additional studies associated with the permitting process.
The bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River slowly makes its way toward Kenai Bible Church.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
While the engineering firm was developing a design for the mile-long bluff stabilization and coastal trail project, the city held a series of public meetings to get comments on the project and to answer the questions and concerns of community members, bluff property owners and state and federal agencies.
Several issues arose regarding the environmental impact the project could have on the ecologically sensitive and important areas of the Kenai River mouth and Kenai River flats. The meetings were held so the city could understand those concerns and have the engineering firm do research to answer them.
"We were trying to get all the input from the agencies so we could answer questions before we submitted the permit," said Keith Kornelis, public works manager for Kenai.
The project design developed by the engineering firm calls for work below the river bank's high-tide line. The city wants to install 2,500-pound boulders, called armor rock, and smaller rock, called riprap, to stop wave erosion at the base of the bluff. To do so, it needs to receive several permits from government agencies. Before it applied for the permits, the city wanted to make sure it had all the information the agencies would ask for in the permitting process.
"We have to satisfy the agencies before we can get the permit to do the work, that is what we've been trying to do," Kornelis said. "We want to work with them. ... That's why we're spending the money and effort, we want all the problems to come out before we do the work. This is something we're going to have to maintain so we want to do it right, and we certainly don't want to damage anything when we're through."
By August 2001, the city thought it had the information needed to satisfy agency concerns, so the engineering firm submitted the project for the required permits. As it turns out, the city was wrong.
Shortly after the application was submitted, several state and federal agencies submitted letters listing their concerns about the project and recommending the permit review process be suspended until their concerns were satisfied. (See )
The state Division of Governmental Coordination, which oversaw the review process, officially suspended the review of the project Sept. 19, 2001, due to the concerns and recommendations of the agencies.
The engineering firm responded to the concerns and answered as many of the questions as it could, but it simply did not have all the information the agencies required. As a result, the project is on hold.
After three years of planning, conducting studies, holding public meetings and investing at least $130,000, there is no sea wall, and no hope of construction beginning for at least another year or two.
"All the money they've spent on that, if they could pile it up in front of bluff it would save the bluff," said Bob Peters, who has lived on the bluff for 23 years.
The city requested a $500,000 grant from the federal government in 2001 to conduct the additional studies needed to gain agency approval of the project. The money was appropriated by Sen. Ted Stevens but was given to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the study, instead of the city. That move effectively put the city in a wait-and-see position. Until the Corps conducts the studies and decides the project is economically feasible and not harmful to the environment, the city can't begin work on the wall or trail.
"The city's position is that it is (economically feasible and not harmful to the environment)," Kornelis said. "We feel that this would help the environment in that we wouldn't have all the silt washing into the river."
The Corps will study environmental impacts of the project, as well as alternative ways to minimize erosion, said Kenneth Turner, project manager with the Corps.
"We don't want to duplicate what's already been done," Turner said. "Part of the study is to evaluate the data that already exists and see what else needs to be done to assess the stability requirements there."
Currently, the Corps is putting together a scope of work for the research and has not yet begun the study. A subcontractor will need to be hired to carry out the research before it can begin, he said. The city of Kenai hopes the Corps will use the engineering firm it has contracted with, since it has done extensive research on the project. Turner said it will be another month or two before the contract is awarded. Once it is, the study will take 14 months to complete.
By that time, another 3 feet will have eroded off the bluff.
But at this point, all the city can do is wait and hope. It can't build below the high-tide line without the permits, and it can't apply for state and federal grants without the Corps' stamp of approval.
After coming this far, the city is still determined to get the wall and trail built and is optimistic it will happen.
"It's a great project," Kornelis said. "You can imagine walking along the river on a paved path that's maybe 20 to 30 feet above the water. You will be able to watch boats coming in, fishermen on the river, beluga whales and seals while you're able to walk along the river's edge. It would be an asset to the city."
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