Hope erodes

Bluff project: No money in sight

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2007

Army engineers and biologists came to town last week to talk about the Kenai bluff.

Meeting with Kenai city officials and residents, Army Corps of Engineers members and contractors gave an update on the bluff erosion studies that have been completed, and discussed design concepts for addressing the loss of land to the elements.

Because Congress has only funded studies and not any construction work, any possible solution remains years away, according to Pat Fitzgerald, a civil engineer with the Corps.

He said the Corps will have "detailed drawings for design alternatives this spring," but also said the Corps currently does not have the authority to build anything.

"If the Corps builds it, we go through as a (National Environmental Policy Act) project," Fitzgerald said of a bluff erosion control project. "Basically that means we issue a permit to ourselves.

"If the city does it, they would need to go through permitting with (all agencies involved)," he said.

Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said, "This is a $15- to $20-million project. We have no money. We have the authority from the voters to issue $2 million in bonds."

Koch said while he is hopeful of getting funding through Congress, "It is possible it will never get funded."

That was not the kind of news Kenai bluff residents Kathleen and Gary Foster were hoping for.

"We're losing three feet (of land) a year. This year we lost six feet," Kathleen Foster said.

The couple said they have already moved their house back from the bluff's edge. Now they are up against the street "... as far as we can go."

Fitzgerald said, "If we had the funding in hand and all the stars aligned it would take one year to finish the studies, one year to complete the design and one year to build."

However, he also said, "Typically, a streamlined project for us is 15 years to complete."

Engineers and biologists for the Corps met with city officials on Thursday during an afternoon session at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building and met in a work session with several city council members and residents at city hall in the evening.

The Corps' involvement with the bluff erosion project began in 2000, according to Fitzgerald, and in 2002, Congress directed the agency to conduct a technical study of bluff erosion in Kenai.

In 2006, the Corps completed its technical report looking at environmental issues, erosion and sediment transport, hydraulics, surface and subsurface water flow, economics and cultural impacts.

Environmentally, the Corps gathered data on impacts to invertebrates on which shore birds feed, annual bird and marine mammal activity and data on fisheries. The Corps also evaluated bluff erosion mechanisms and the relationship of bluff erosion to the beach dunes outside the mouth of the Kenai River.

The Corps also wanted to know whether waves bouncing off a sea wall beneath the bluff on the north side of the river would impact the shore on the south side, and studied riverine characteristics including depth, velocity and flow patterns.

To determine flow rates of ground water, several clusters of test wells were drilled along the top of the bluff to depths ranging from 37 to 100 feet. Well flow tests also aided in estimating soil permeability.

Setting aside national economics, Fitzgerald said the Corps did a cursory economic evaluation.

"Nationally, if you find that one person loses a dollar and one person gains a dollar, it's a wash," he said. Therefore, the Corps looked specifically at local economics to try to determine the cost-benefit ratio between an erosion abatement project and the benefit to Kenai if the erosion is halted.

Factors determined to be contributing to the erosion include wave action at the toe of the bluff, groundwater seepage from the upper sand layer, runoff draining over the bluff and the freeze-thaw effects weakening the bluff. Responding to one resident's question, Fitzgerald said the Corps also looked at wind erosion.

Studying possible impacts of a bluff erosion control project, he said it would have no impact on the river hydraulic system and wave energy would not be redirected to the south shore. Because the north shore is so compacted, invertebrates are nonexistent there, but only are present on the south shore, meaning bird feeding would not be impacted.

A conceptual design, which would reduce the steepness of the slope of the bluff and place a rock abutment at the toe, would likely not alter bird and fish use of the river, Fitzgerald said.

In considering design alternatives, Fitzgerald said, "We need to protect against 9-foot waves at the mouth (of the river) and 6-foot waves at the cannery docks."

Root wads would not work against waves that size and the use of steel sheet pile disturbs a number of the agencies that would need to sign off on the project.

"Rock is in the middle," he said, and would be the material of choice.

The Corps study also revealed only 7 percent of the dune material is coming from the bluff.

Ongoing work includes geotechnical investigations, bank stabilization design alternatives, cost estimating, surveying and mapping, which would be carried out by engineering consultant Tetra Tech Inc.

The Corps is performing economic analyses, environmental evaluations, plan formulation and other work that might be necessitated through additional public input meetings.

Fitzgerald said while the Corps is not permitted to lobby, residents of Kenai could start contacting members of the Alaska congressional delegation to get the project funded.

Councilwoman Linda Swarner, who attended the work session, said, "I encourage residents who have an interest to engage the congressional delegation anytime they come to town." She also suggested contacting delegation aides.

Koch said as the city enters the process, every effort would be made to design the project around existing buildings where possible.

"There are buildings that may need to be taken we'll try not to," Koch said. "We don't want to take anyone's home."

Fitzgerald assured residents they would have an opportunity to give input into the final design alternative, which he hoped to have ready by May.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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