Which moves faster: the geological process of bluff erosion, or the bureaucratic process of project funding?
According to a 2007 Army Corps of Engineers report, Kenai’s bluffs retreat 3 feet each year. For the past 20 years, the city of Kenai has named the problem of vanishing bluff-top property as a top priority, and is currently attempting to solve it through a collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers. While 2014 didn’t see a sweeping solution to the problem, it may have seen some slow steps forward.
The city’s project focuses on 5,000 feet of bluff on the north bank of the Kenai river mouth. This bluff reaches from the Pacific Star Seafood Cannery to Beluga Lookout RV park, encompassing much of Kenai’s Old Town. The 2007 report estimates that between 20 and 30 buildings in this neighborhood could be affected by erosion within the next 50 years. Erosion has already forced the relocation of buildings and utility lines from this area. Another cost is lost development in Kenai’s downtown, where businesses may be reluctant to invest because of the instability of the property.
‘Armor the toe’
An Army Corps study found that Kenai’s bluff is made of a layer of sand sitting on clay. While the sandy upper layer is washed down the slope, the clay beneath is eroded by tides. In June 2011, the Corps presented its engineering solution: to “armor the toe” of the bluff with heavy rocks that will allow fallen sand to remain around its base. The shielding rocks will be backed with material removed from the top of the bluff, giving support and decreasing the bluff’s steepness.
“The toe of the slope is the key to everything that happens there,” said Kenai city manager Rick Koch, who has worked closely with the Corps on the project. “The toe of the slope never stabilizes. Material falls to the toe of the slope, and gets washed away. If the material that fell down the toe of the slope stayed there, at some point that bluff would reach what’s called a natural angle of repose, and it would start to re-vegetate itself. But because it doesn’t, because that material is washed away, we get that continual motion of 3 feet a year.”
The Corps’ technical feasibility study, which established the practicality and effectiveness of the armored toe solution, was the first step toward construction. Koch said that while that study was being done, the Corps simultaneously conducted others, including a cost feasibility and a cultural resources study.
“At the end of all of that, they have these pieces of an overall study,” said Koch. “Where we’re at now in the process is pulling all the studies together. This is the final feasibility study.”
After the final feasibility study is complete the environmental impact of the bluff modification will be assessed, then the Corps can start construction. The process of finding and appropriating funding has stalled the launch of the final feasibility study since 2011.
Funding the project
The Corps predicts that completing the study will require a budget of $650,000. An agreement between the city of Kenai and the Army Corps of Engineers allows each entity to contribute 50 percent of that amount. The Kenai city council voted to enter the agreement in September 2011, but David Martinson of the Corps of Engineers, project director of the final feasibility report, said that the Corps did not officially enter the agreement because it has not yet received federal government funding for its half.
As of May 2014, Kenai had received three grants for the bluff project, totaling $4 million, from the State Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. Other sources of funding include a $2 million bond proposal and contributions from the Borough for cost of materials. With this budget, and the expectation of other state and federal funding, Koch said that the city has money prepared for not only its $325,000 share of the final feasibility study, but for its share of the eventual construction as well.
The Corps has not been as quick to produce its half of the cost. A 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service found that, nationwide, the Army Corps of Engineers had a roster of unfunded projects worth $62 billion. Among this backlog is the final feasibility study for Kenai’s bluff erosion project. Presently, the Corps has identified a source of funding for the study, for which it is now trying to receive authorization.
“They have found the money, but it takes a long route to approval to use the money they found,” said Koch.
The money will be taken from the budgets of three canceled Corps projects in Alaska — in Galena, Barrow, and Ketchikan — through a process that Martinson called “fund reprogramming.”
In February 2014, Koch sent a letter to Undersecretary of the Army Jo Ellen Darcy, a Corps of Engineers leader whose approval was required for the reprogramming. After outlining the cost-sharing plan of September 2011, Koch wrote, “From the city’s perspective very little has been accomplished since that time.”
A state grant given to Kenai’s bluff erosion project in September 2010 was set to lapse if the money wasn’t spent by June 2014. With this deadline looming, three members of Kenai’s city government — city manager Rick Koch, mayor Pat Porter, and council member Tim Navarre — traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Darcy and present the idea of Kenai funding the entire final feasibility study with its own budget.
Earlier that month, Martinson told Koch that the approval for reprogramming had been stalled at the district and regional levels. In the Corps’ organizational map, Alaska is overseen by a district office in Anchorage and by the regional office of the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division, which includes Alaska, Hawaii, Korea, and Japan, and is headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii. Both the district and regional authorities needed to approve the fund reprogramming before it reached federal-level authorities such as Darcy in Washington, D.C. Martinson told Koch that since 2011 the district office had been uncertain of how to process the approval because, as Koch recounted to Darcy in his letter, “an Alaskan coastal erosion project has never been accomplished under a Section 116 Authorization (the 2009 legislation that specifies how the Corps must carry out cost-shared erosion projects in Alaska).”
Movement from Washington, D.C.
On Feb. 24, the three Kenai officials had half-hour meetings with each member of Alaska’s congressional delegation — Sen. Lisa Murkowski, then-Sen. Mark Begich, and Rep. Don Young. Aside from pressing the need for action against bluff erosion, they asked for the delegates’ support in allowing the city to pay forward the federal share of the final feasibility study. They proposed that Kenai pay the full cost of the study using the state appropriations that were set to expire. The Corps would then pay the city back for its 50 percent share at a later date, after finishing its own process of securing funds. Navarre said that the congressional delegates were supportive of the idea.
“Senator Begich actually made a phone call from his office to the Corps and let them know, ‘Hey, they’re saying they’ve got the money, I’m OK with working something through so they can pay the full amount and be reimbursed later on,’” Navarre said. “Just to let them know that there was that kind of support from the senator, and if there was anything he could do to help, he would advocate, to let them know he was on board.”
Three days later, the trio from Kenai visited the Pentagon to meet with Darcy. Ultimately, the Corps rejected Kenai’s offer to front the funding for the study.
“They had their legal folks look into it, and found out that it wasn’t a possibility,” said Koch.
Martinson said that it would have been possible for Kenai to use its money to cover the Corps’ share of funding, but that doing so would be unlikely to shorten the path to the final feasibility study.
“There is an authority that allows a non-Federal sponsor, like the city, to go and perform a feasibility study, using all our requirements, regulations, and policies,” Martinson said. “They can pursue it on their own, submit it, look for approval from the Corps of Engineers, and then get it authorized for construction. But it’s a very lengthy process, and I think it’s only been tried a few times nationally.”
After the D.C. trip, the city of Kenai chose not to alter the original agreement and resumed waiting for the Corps to fund its half of the cost-share. However, Councilor Navarre said that the meeting with Darcy did result in action from the Corps.
“I would say that we’d still be sitting here not knowing where the money is, and we would have possibly lost some of our re-appropriation (from the state) because of saying ‘we don’t know what they’re doing.’” Navarre said. ”
Since the February meeting with Darcy, the funding approval has moved from the regional to the federal level.
After the approval passed through Darcy’s office, Murkowski, Begich, and Young gave it their signatures. The next and final authority to approve the funding will be the United States Congress.
The approval will come before the House and Senate appropriations committees, where it will be considered by the House Subcommittee on Energy, Water Development, and Related Agencies, and in the Senate by the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, of which Murkowski is a member. The approval was not presented to these subcommittees during the most recent session, which ended on December 16.
“I’m hopeful that after the new congress sits, we can get that final box checked and move forward with the final feasibility study,” Koch said.
Congress will begin its next session Saturday, although the appropriations committees of the House and Senate have not yet scheduled their next meetings, and it remains uncertain when the Corps’ funding might receive its final approval.
The city of Kenai still has funds budgeted for its share of the final feasibility study. The most recent state grant given to the bluff erosion project was appropriated by the city in December 2014, replacing the grant that lapsed in June of this year. If not spent, the December 2014 grant is set to lapse in June 2015.
Both Koch and Martinson estimated that the final feasibility study might take two years to complete. Navarre has a similar expectation.
“I believe we’ll be done with the final feasibility study by 2016,” he said, “From there it’s not a matter of if, it’s just when. Then we’re really going to start putting dollars into the actual project and see results.”
Koch said that other required documentation is underway, including “at least 60 percent” of the Environmental Impact Statement required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Once that study, contingent on the final feasibility study, is complete, the Corps can begin reshaping Kenai’s bluffs.
The estimated $34 million cost of the construction will be paid through another cost-share agreement between the Corps and the city, in which Kenai will contribute 30 percent of the funds and the Corps will contribute 70 percent.