Bluff project finds opposition

Mayor courts support for trail

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

It will take more than the city's expertise to win approval for erosion control and a coastal trail along the lower Kenai River, Kenai Mayor John Williams said Wednesday.

With state and federal resource agencies lining up against the $10 million project, winning approval will require community support, he told the Kenai City Council.

He said he wants the city council and the Harbor Commission to plot strategy with the city's engineers and lobbyist.

He suggested the Harbor Commission could hold a series of public meetings that would benefit the project by bringing together large numbers of people who would be affected by it.

Williams said he plans to examine closely the letters agencies have written criticizing the proposal,"so that ... great numbers of members of the community will be able to see that activity and how it's taken place so that they might respond ...

"I believe that in this particular instance, it's going to take not only the expertise of the city and a government-to-government relationship being resolved to cause this project to occur, but I think it's going to take a great deal of work between the community and members of the community and government agencies to make this project work."

The city proposes placing heavy rocks and fill to stabilize the north bank along the lowest 1.2 miles of the river. A paved trail atop the fill would accommodate recreational users. The city would cut back the bluff to produce a stable slope.

Williams said the need is urgent, since the bluff is receding an average of three feet per year. An office building at the end of Willow Street and a four-plex next to it are within three feet of the edge, he said.

Keith Kornelis, public works manager, said the city has spent about $120,000 for a reconnaissance study and a conceptual design and to apply for permits.

A 30-day public comment period began Aug. 10 on the city's application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, the clock stopped at day 25 after several agencies asked for more information.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have opposed the project.

Ann Rappoport, field supervisor for the Anchorage ecological services office of Fish & Wildlife, wrote the Corps that the Kenai River supports Alaska's largest sport fishery and produces sockeye salmon for commercial fishers.

Water near the river banks provides critical rearing areas for juvenile king salmon, she wrote, and estuarine areas are important for salmon smolts adapting to salt water. Wetlands by the lower river are important to moose, caribou and waterfowl. They contribute nutrients to the food web in the lower river, including millions of out-migrating salmon, she wrote.

Hardening the north bank could accelerate erosion on the south bank, threatening wetlands important to fish and wildlife, she wrote. Placing the rocks also would greatly change the habitat available to juvenile fish, reducing the food supply and the number of fish the estuary will support. Hardening the banks could force young fish into deeper water, where they would be more subject to predators.

James Balsiger, Alaska administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote that the city should explore other options for providing a coastal trail and consider options such as bioengineering to stabilize eroding bluffs.

"NMFS feels the proposed project negates previous efforts to maintain, protect and restore habitat in the Kenai River watershed," he wrote. "NMFS believes the project, as proposed, may have substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance ..."

Marcia Combes, director of the Alaska Operations Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote that beluga whales, harbor seals and killer whales feed in the lower river, and Steller sea lions have been seen as far upstream as Cunningham Park. Belugas are listed as depleted and Steller sea lions as endangered. Harbor seals are declining in Cook Inlet and could require protection, she wrote.

She questioned the assumptions behind a city-funded study of the sediment movement that supplies dunes near the mouth of the river. She questioned its conclusion that the eroding bluffs contribute just 7 percent of the sediments, so there should be no fear of future erosion to the dunes or beaches to the north.

There are significant questions about the the causes of erosion to the bluffs, she wrote. Before the Corps issues permits, the city should study sediment transport, the potential for erosion up or downstream from the project, use by fish and birds of the shore in the project area, and biological impacts of the project.

Building the trail at the top of the bluffs would eliminate the need for much of the fill, Combes wrote.

"Alternatively, it may be less expensive for the city to simply purchase the threatened property, moving people out of harm's way and avoiding tideland fill," she wrote.

Williams said agencies sometimes overestimate the environmental costs of a project. There should be concern for the community as well as fish and wildlife, he said.

"While many environmentalists would prefer not to see human encroachment in many areas we occupy, it not only becomes necessary but, I think, correct that citizens should be able to occupy them in a safe and environmentally sound way," he said.

Kornelis said he thinks the city can address the agencies' concerns.

Congress has been considering a $500,000 appropriation to fund engineering for the project, he said, and hopefully, some of that could be used to fund bioengineering the agencies are requesting. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is unclear if or when Congress will appropriate the money.

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