Kenai fill project meets opposition

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- A $10 million plan to put heavy rocks and fill along the north shore of the lower Kenai River is running into heavy opposition from state and federal agencies who say the move could harm habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is asking for a complete ecosystem analysis to see if the changes would hurt fish and wildlife.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have also said they're concerned about the project.

But Kenai Mayor John Williams wants to rally community support for the idea. He said this week he wants the city council and the Harbor Commission to plot strategy with the city's engineers and lobbyist.

The city wants to place heavy rocks and fill to stabilize the north bank along the lowest 1.2 miles of the river. A paved trail would be built atop the fill. 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 and a four-plex are within three feet of the edge, he said.

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 was stopped at day 25 after several agencies asked for more information.

Ann Rappoport of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the Corps of Engineers that the Kenai River supports Alaska's largest sport fishery and produces sockeye salmon for commercial fishermen.

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.

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.

James Balsiger, Alaska administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote that the city should explore other options for a trail and consider 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...''

Marcia Combes of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that beluga whales, harbor seals and killer whales feed in the lower river, as well as Steller sea lions.

''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.

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

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 pay for 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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