Kenai bluff project: Can Mother Nature really be controlled?

Posted: Sunday, August 04, 2002

Can you fight Mother Nature and win?

The city of Kenai wants to try. It is proposing to spend an estimated $10 million to at least slow the ravages of erosion along one mile of the Kenai bluff with a sea wall and coastal trail. It is estimated the project would save $20 million worth of bluff property and add a recreational attraction with one heck of a view to the city's list of amenities.

Without some sort of bluff stabilization project, it's improbable the city will be able to do much in the way of development with the prime piece of real estate between the senior citizens center and Bridge Access Road that it has dubbed Millennium Square.

The Kenai bluff is eroding at a rate of about 3 feet per year. Kenai Mayor John Williams has identified the erosion as the single biggest problem facing the city. It already has claimed some buildings and lots, a portion of Mission Avenue and a sewer line. Periodic signs warn of the bluff's instability.

A summer stroll along the beach where the project is proposed and some quiet moments atop the bluff make the project seem like a no-brainer.

It may be hard to find Kenai's "city center," but certainly the area where the city wants to build the sea wall and coastal trail captures the essence of Kenai's heart. The sound of gulls, the smell of fish, glimpses of belugas and views of snow-capped volcanoes across the inlet give the city its unique character. It's in this place one easily remembers why Kenai is special, why its residents choose to make it their home.

Why shouldn't every effort be made to save valuable property and protect the investment in the senior center and housing? And wouldn't a trail be a great way for everyone to enjoy this truly special place?

Still, there are nagging questions.

A mile is such a short piece of the entire bluff. What happens beyond the mile? Is it possible the proposed project will speed the rate of erosion at other points? What then? It will take a lot of $10-million projects to protect all the property threatened by erosion along the bluff.

What about effects to the Kenai River? Kenai's history, after all, is tied to fishing. Can anyone guarantee the project won't harm the river or the valuable wetlands at the mouth of the river?

What about the fundamental issue of trying to stop what's occurring naturally? There's certainly a logical argument that can be made that the city -- and the rest of the peninsula that lines Cook Inlet -- should learn to live with the erosion. There's nothing that's going to stop it. The erosion hasn't been a secret, so why have private individuals, not to mention the city, chosen to build along the bluff? The views, of course, are mesmerizing. But those who build in flood plains and avalanche areas take their chances by building there; isn't the same true of those who build in areas susceptible to wind and wave damage?

That, of course, leads to this question: Aren't people really the problem when it comes to erosion?

People's desire for the beautiful views the bluff provides certainly has contributed in a major way to the problem. If no one built along the bluff, erosion would still occur, but it wouldn't be the problem it is today. On the Kenai Peninsula, of course, not building anywhere on the bluff would mean not living anywhere along Cook Inlet.

Nevertheless, Kenai officials acknowledge erosion is a problem the city has grappled with for at least 50 years; yet, most, if not all of the buildings, along Kenai's bluff have been built within the last 50 years. Most of them are much newer. Did the city allow them to be built, thinking the erosion would someday stop?

No one wants to dampen the city's enthusiasm for its No. 1 project, but the issue of bluff erosion is far bigger than the mile-long area the city has identified to concentrate its erosion-control efforts.

Several state and federal agencies have identified concerns with the project, including potentially harming fish and wildlife, disturbing the natural course of the river and depleting sand dunes. It should go without saying that those concerns need to be alleviated before the project moves forward.

While those studies are being done, the city of Kenai should examine what is known about bluff erosion and human activities. In a place known for its wild beauty, is controlling nature really the best course of action? How long can wind and waves and river currents be controlled?

Can you fight Mother Nature and win? At what cost?

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