Funny River residents fear bank erosion

Residents of the Funny River community nicknamed a boulder near the confluence of the Funny and Kenai rivers “the magic rock.”

Some remember kids growing up angling for salmon from the rock, which stood just at the edge of the bank near the confluence. But these days, the rock is nowhere to be seen — it’s underwater, along with wide swathes of the Funny River bank.

The homeowners’ association that jointly owns the lot along the Funny River, the Clearwater Lot Owner’s Association, has been concerned about the level of erosion along a section of the Funny River for the past 15 years. The owners have tried mitigation to save the bank. Jim Harpring, a local property owner and former board member on the Clearwater Lot Owners’ Association board, said the association has twice tried to install spruce tree revetments along that section of the bank to stop it from collapsing.

“We’ve got pictures of Funny River looking like Class IV whitewater,” Harpring said. “Right now, you’ve got the backpush against the main Kenai, and so it looks like a pond. But when the spring floods come, it just takes this bank out.”

The fast current wiped out the spruce tree revetment the association initially installed in 2004 and a second one the association installed in 2006. With two failed mitigation efforts behind them and more bank eroding every year, the association wants to put in riprap, a type of rock usually used for breakwaters or bank stabilization, to shore up the bank for a longer period of time.

Installing riprap requires a conditional use permit, subject to approval by the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Planning Commission.

That’s where the homeowners’ association hit a roadblock. The borough enforces a 50-foot habitat protection zone around all anadromous streams, which includes the Funny and Kenai rivers. To operate inside that, the project has to meet a number of criteria and gain approval from multiple agencies.

Planning Department staff at the borough reviewed the application and recommended that the project doesn’t meet the criteria for a conditional use permit. Installing the riprap would reduce salmon habitat, remove natural vegetation and would add more structure to the habitat protection district. The applicants also did not submit hydrologic and hydraulic studies showing that there would be no damage to adjoining properties if the project goes through, according to the staff report submitted to the Planning Commission for its Monday meeting.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit for the project, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommended denying the permit because of the risk to salmon habitat, according to a letter submitted to the Planning Commission.

The main reason the lot owners object to using rootwad is because of the cost, in addition to their doubt that it will be a permanent fix. The rootwad method uses the root ball of a tree plus a portion of the trunk to armor the streambank and deflect flows away from the bank. It’s preferred because it can help protect the bank while still providing vegetation for fish habitat.

However, it’s significantly more expensive — for the roughly 163 feet of river bank proposed for the project, it would cost about $73,700, according to an estimate the lot owners’ association requested last year.

There are only 25 members of the association, calculating out to about $2,948 per lot owner. Not all lot owners will be able to afford that, Cathy Morgan said in her testimony to the Planning Commission Monday.

“That’s a huge amount of money, and what if it all washes away, too?” Morgan told the Planning Commission. “…If this all washes away, the people (who don’t have river-front lots) won’t have access to the river at all.”

Fish and Game offers a cost-sharing program in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help landowners and land managers fund bank restoration projects.

The program can cover 50 percent or more of the cost to complete a project, said Tracy Smith with the Division of Sportfish. The department is accepting applications for projects next season.

“It’s a win-win,” Smith said. “It’s stabilizing the stream bank, which is a pro for the landowner and for the fish at the same time.”

Fish and Game managers will visit a site and offer the landowners some options for possible bank stabilization. The preferred method varies by site, but rootwad offers instant fish habitat and can prove just as stable as any other method, Smith said.

Riprap does not offer as many hospitable areas for fish to hide, and it can be just as expensive as rootwad depending on a number of factors, she said.

Other methods, like the spruce tree revetment, are cheaper but require more maintenance, she said.

“We give you a variety of techniques you can use,” Smith said. “You can use cabled spruce trees, but those require maintenance once every three years. Cabled spruce trees are less expensive. If it’s maintenance you don’t mind, that’s a good option.”

Harpring said the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has installed riprap in a number of rivers in the borough to protect roads in recent years. He noted that other rivers, such as the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, also have long stretches of riprap installed.

Harpring said he felt this was a double standard, as the Clearwater Lot Owner’s Association wants to install a similar project and is denied on the basis of impeding fish passage.

“There are apparently, in this borough, two standards — one for public facilities and one for the private sector,” Harpring said in his testimony to the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the conditional use permit. Some of the commissioners felt the project would damage fish habitat and there are still other options for the group to try to restore the bank.

The borough code allows for riprap to be used to protect public projects like roadways, said Tom Dearlove, the manager of the River Center.

Some of the projects Harpring cited, such as the ones on the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, were in response to dramatic flood events. A current project DOT is working on for the North Fork of the Anchor River includes riprap for stabilization as well as vegetation and bioengineering to make it more habitat-friendly, he said. The River Center has not approved riprap to be used on private property before, he said.

“This (Funny River project) wouldn’t be what we consider an emergency,” Dearlove said.

“We’ve been working with them since 2012 on this. We would encourage them to come back and get some assistance from the cost-sharing program.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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