Kenai's plans on hold for protecting city bluff

Posted: Sunday, August 04, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- From atop the Kenai bluff, onlookers can watch fishing boats work the Kenai River, see beluga whales feeding on fish and gaze at snowcapped volcanoes.

While it's an aesthetic asset, the bluff poses a major problem for the city of Kenai: it's eroding 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.

The city would like to begin work stabilizing the bluff, but objections from oversight agencies have put erosion control work on hold.

The Kenai bluff is 55 to 70 feet high. Wind affects the upper portion and rainwater striking the face can loosen and wash away material in streams.

Far more substantial damage occurs at the bottom. Waves crash into the base. Tide-induced currents and the steady seaward current from the river collaborate to pull material off the foot of the bluff and carry it downstream. Eventually, the base is undercut to a point where it can't support the sand and clay above.

In 50 years, the bluff has receded 150 feet from waves. The erosion has claimed buildings. Five years ago, the city lost a portion of Mission Avenue. Last year, the city had to move a sewer line.

Williams said he was told by an expert that the bluff would continue to erode to the Kenai Mall parking lot. At 3 feet per year, that would take a few lifetimes, but eventually claim houses, churches, apartments and businesses.

The lack of a stabilization program also means the city cannot afford to develop prime real estate along the bluff such as Millennium Square, an area near the senior citizens center.

''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.''

In 1998, the city began its most ambitious erosion mitigation project. It commissioned Peratrovich, Nottingham and Drage, an Anchorage engineering firm, to study bluff erosion and design a sea wall and coastal trail.

Over three years, the city spent about $130,000. Eventually, consultants came up with a project that calls for work below the river bank's high-tide line.

A trail would be built 33 feet above the average low water mark, atop a sea wall that would protect the base of the bluff from erosion caused by waves, currents and tides. The wall would be built of armor rock, huge boulders ranging from 500 to 10,000 pounds, layered on top of smaller filter rock.

The cost was estimated at $10 million. Williams estimated the project would save $20 million in property on the bluff.

One year ago, city officials thought they had the information needed to gain the necessary permits. But after the application was submitted, several state and federal agencies submitted letters listing concerns and recommending the permit review process be suspended.

The fundamental debate centers whether anything should be done to stabilize the bluff.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game raised issues regarding the environmental impact the proposed seawall may have on the river, the Kenai River Flats and the surrounding area.

According to the EPA, erosion and deposition of sediment in the river and at the river mouth renews habitat for fish, marine mammals and birds. The agency said construction of a sea wall could change flow, erosion and deposition of sediment patterns in the river and possibly degrade wetlands.

Agencies said large boulders below the high tide line would harden that portion of the river bank, and hardening the bank may deflect energy to the opposite bank and cause erosion in a different area, possibly in the ecologically important wetlands, or change the pattern of the river altogether.

Agencies also said stopping erosion of the bluff in that area will deprive the beach dunes at the mouth of the river of sand.

Retired Fish and Game biologist Ken Tarbox opposes the project.

''The river is naturally eroding in that direction at 3 feet per year,'' he said. ''Whether that will continue is questionable, that's just what the river's doing. ... We have a river system producing millions of dollars to benefit the whole peninsula and therefore, to me, the best way to maintain that investment is to oppose this. It is arrogant of humans to think that they know how rivers operate and put at risk those investment dollars in economic resources.''

Tarbox suggested the city build a trail that does not require construction on the bluff or in the river mouth. Building on top of the bluff would be an option, he said.

City officials say that will not stop the erosion.

''We still have to keep the waves from crashing into the side of the bluff,'' said Keith Kornelis, city public works manager.

The city requested $500,000 from the federal government last year to conduct additional studies needed to gain agency approvals. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, obtained the money and it was granted to the Army Corps of Engineers. That move effectively put the city in a wait-and-see position.

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.''

Turner said it will be another month or two before the contract is awarded. The study will take 14 months to complete.

City officials remain determined to get the wall and trail built.

''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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