Army Corps leaders speak on Kenai bluff erosion

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the meeting to July 6.

Last week Kenai residents provided input on one local attempt to deal with Alaska’s unstable geography from Washington, D.C.

Army Corps of Engineers project manager Ronnie Barcak and lead planner Jan Deick — the leader’s of the Kenai bluff erosion mitigation project — spoke with attendees at a July 6 meeting at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. The meeting followed the June 16 release of a report that provided justification for the chosen project design — a wave-protecting barrier of large stones at the base of the mile-long stretch of bluff below Old Town Kenai — to the Corps’ national leadership.

The peninsula’s Cook Inlet shoreline is eroding away at rates that range from 0.6 feet and 5.7 feet per year, according to a 2016 Kenai Peninsula Borough-commissioned risk report. In Kenai, the average three-feet-per-year erosion of the bluff above the Kenai River mouth has been a concern almost since the town’s incorporation in 1960, with the Army Corps of Engineers doing navigation improvement studies of the river mouth in 1962, followed by several studies by the Army Corps, the U.S Geological Survey, the University of Alaska and contractors for the city of Kenai through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

John Williams, Kenai’s mayor from 1986 to 2004 and a city harbor commissioner prior to that, attended the meeting. Williams said he’d been associated with this project for close to 40 years after working on the studies in the 1970s and had personally lobbied for funds from state and federal governments for the project.

He said the reason the project had not yet been accomplished “is all politics.”

“There’s no reason — no reason whatsoever — you can’t haul tons of hard-faced rock over there and take care of that bluff,” Williams said. “… It’s been 40 years of playing games back and forth.”

In the context of the Army Corps’ statewide work, Kenai’s bluff erosion problem is a medium priority. The Corps’ 2009 Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment examined 178 Alaskan communities that reported erosion problems, dividing them into three classes of urgency: 26 priority action communities, 69 “monitor conditions” communities, in which “erosion problems are present but not significant enough to require immediate action” and 83 “minimal erosion communities.” The Corps included Kenai in the middle category, along with Homer, Soldotna and Seward. The priority action category includes communities such as Barrow, Kivalina, Newtok, Dillingham and Shishmaref, all rural coastal communities or communities near large bodies of water.

Since 1999, Kenai and the Army Corps of Engineers have been pursuing the present incarnation of the project as a cost-share agreement in which Kenai will cover up to 35 percent of the project’s presently-estimated $34 million cost. Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander outlined how Kenai will pay for its approximately $12 million share of the project. About $4 million would come from state grants that the city already has in hand, and a bond proposition previously passed by votes would allow the city to sell up to $2 million in bonds. Some of the funding will come from in-kind donations, but that still leaves the city about $5.5 million short, he said.

“How the city comes up with that is something we’ll have to come up with for that point,” Ostrander said. “…It will almost certainly require us to go back to the voters and look for additional sale of bonds.”

At a previous presentation to the Kenai City Council on July 5, council member Bob Molloy mentioned a past donation to the project from the Kenai Peninsula Borough — which offered Kenai $5 million worth of rock in 2009 — and asked whether such contributions would count as in-kind payments. Barcak said that some Army Corps projects require local contributions to be 5 percent cash, and that he would look into the specific requirements of this project.

The Army Corps’ most recent report on the project, released June 16, establishes as a preference a lighter-weight project than those planned in the past. The current plans call for laying rock around the base of the bluff and allowing falling material to fill in behind it, while previous designs required regrading the bluff’s slope. The new plan dropped the project’s expected final cost from $43 million to $32 million.

Army Corps civil works projects — those, such as Kenai’s bluff erosion project, that aren’t undertaken on behalf of the military — are funded by congressional appropriations made through Energy and Water Development Appropriations acts.

In the case of the recently completed study, this fund-seeking process lasted from 2011 — when Kenai and the Army Corps agreed to a 50-50 sharing of the study’s cost, then estimated to be $640,000 — to 2015. By the time it was federally funded in October of that year, the study’s estimated cost had increased to $1.17 million, requiring an additional $333,000 from the city.

As for the bluff erosion project’s future cost, Barcak said “there’s more bouncing to be had.” In previous Clarion reporting, Army Corps spokesperson Tom Findtner said the bluff erosion project’s next step — a report expected in April 2018 — has been funded, but work beyond that will need additional funding from Congress. Under the current schedule for the bluff erosion project, the Corps plans to issue a construction contract in June 2020 and complete work in 2022.

The present plan is open until July 16 to public comments, which can be emailed to Barcak at Ronnie.G.Barcak@usace.army.mil. Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel encouraged attendees at Thursday meeting to comment.

“As an elected official, when you hear people come out and comment on things, that’s what really spurs action more than anything,” Gabriel said.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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