From bluff erosion, to flood mitigation, to fish passage, Kenai Peninsula projects are set to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money through the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year.
President Joe Biden signed the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law in November 2021. The legislation includes $550 billion in new spending on infrastructure over five years and was advanced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, who has called the bill a “win for Alaska.”
Per Murkowski’s office, Alaska is set to receive more than $2.8 billion for projects through the legislation, including more than $232 million for projects throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
There’s $185 million for a new flood diversion system in Seward, $28 million for the stabilization of the Kenai bluff, $13.5 million for new U.S. Coast Guard housing in Seward, $1.6 million for the replacement of a culvert in Tyonek and hundreds of thousands more dollars for other community-specific projects.
That is all in addition to more than $3 million of investments in seven Kenai Peninsula airports, nearly $1 million for revegetation and hazard mitigation at the Glass & Heifner Mine Site within Kenai Fjords National Park and about $230,000 for the protection of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Kalifornsky Village ancestral gravesite.
With so many projects set to be boosted under the infrastructure bill, we focused on four for this story: Kenai bluff stabilization, mitigation of Lowell Creek flooding in Seward, new U.S. Coast Guard housing in Seward and better fish passage in Tyonek.
Undoubtedly the project on the lineup most familiar to central peninsula residents is the Kenai Bluff Stabilization Project, to which the infrastructure bill has made available $28 million. That project aims to stabilize about 5,000 feet of bluff along the north shore of the Kenai River from the mouth to about Pacific Star Seafoods. The bluff is receding at a rate of about 3 feet per year, threatening existing structures, such as the Kenai Senior Center, in Old Town Kenai.
Stabilization of the Kenai bluff has been decades in the works and has received concentrated attention from Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander, who said Friday that Kenai City Council members made clear when they hired him that the project was their top priority. He said city conversations about the importance of stabilizing the bluff long predate the federal infrastructure bill, and that there has been consistent messaging to Alaska’s congressional delegation over the last six years.
“There were several moments over the last six years when the project was in serious jeopardy of losing all the momentum it had and the funding not happening,” Ostrander said. “Murkowski’s office has done some things to allow the project to continue and then when the infrastructure bill came forward, it was just a great opportunity to provide that funding.”
At the recommendation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to which the money is appropriated, a berm will be constructed at the toe of the bluff. As the top of the bluff continues to erode, material will collect at the base.
The berm will prevent that material from being washed away and it will create a new bluff face slope. Eventually, the bluff face slope will reach an angle at which it is no longer eroding, also called the angle of repose.
“There will be some continued erosion of the upper part of the bluff then it will reach its natural angle of repose, revegetate and become stable,” Ostrander said.
If the project goes out to bid in April 2023, as planned, Ostrander said the city anticipates construction to be completed in 2024. If there are any delays and the 2023 construction season is lost, completion could be delayed to 2025. It’s always a concern, he said, that the city won’t secure a bid for a project, but that the bluff project has specific needs that not all contractors can meet.
“The contractors that will be bidding on this will be a unique set of contractors that do this type of work,” Ostrander said.
On the city’s side, he said, enough money has been secured to pay for a 35% local match for a $35 million project cost. The estimated cost range of the bluff stabilization project is between $19 million and $42 million, however, Ostrander said that range is currently being refined and is expected to be more like between $30 million and $35 million.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will cover 65% of the project cost — about $22.75 million when using the $35 million project cost estimate. The city’s estimated contribution of $12.25 million will be covered by a $6.5 million contribution from the State of Alaska in the most recent state budget, the city’s general fund and other grant awards.
It’s unclear what the fate of the bluff stabilization project would be had the Corps not been allocated money through the infrastructure bill.
“Alaskan projects in general are not looked on as favorably by the Corps as others in other parts of the country, because the benefit of those projects, compared to the cost of those projects, is not as significant,” Ostrander said. “It’s always an uphill battle to get funded through that normal process. Do I think that it would have been funded eventually? Probably, but I can’t say for certain.”
Beyond safeguarding the future of structures currently at risk from the bluff’s erosion, Ostrander has long touted what he said will be a renewed interest in capital investments in Old Town Kenai.
“If we are able to stabilize this bluff, we will see capital investment in Old Town that we haven’t seen in the past,” Ostrander said. “It’s an amazing part of our city. The views are spectacular, the location is excellent — it’s ripe for private investment, but again, no private developer is going to put money into any sort of development there, knowing that that bluff is eroding at 3 feet per year.”
Ostrander announced at the end of September that he will not renew his current employment contract with the City of Kenai when it expires in January. That means the project will change hands, to whoever becomes the city’s next manager. Ostrander said he’s excited to see construction begin, though somewhat disappointed he won’t be able to see the project through to the end.
The creation of a new flood diversion system at Lowell Creek in Seward is the most expensive Kenai Peninsula project being funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That project, in the works for years, is also getting money through allocations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The manufactured waterfall near the Alaska SeaLife Center is a familiar sight to Seward visitors. The falls are created by the diversion of Lowell Creek through a tunnel that drains under Lowell Point Road and into Resurrection Bay. Seward Public Works Director Doug Schoessler said Friday that the tunnel, built between 1939 and 1940, was the first Alaska Flood Control Project done by the Corps.
Before it was diverted into the bay, Lowell Creek ran directly out of the canyon, Schoessler said. It is Lowell Creek that created the triangle-shaped deposit of land — called an “alluvial fan” — on which the City of Seward is now located.
Despite the diversion efforts of the tunnel, Lowell Creek often poses a risk to structures in downtown Seward. Seward City Manager Janette Bower said Thursday that the combination of the city’s location at the base of mountains and proclivity for severe rain events means the Lowell Tunnel doesn’t always work like it should.
With heavy rain and storms usually comes related debris, which can get stuck in the tunnel or accumulate at the tunnel outfall. In both cases, the debris can cause water to back up, either into downtown Seward on Jefferson St. near Providence Seward Medical Center or over Lowell Point Road if debris piles up at the base of the falls.
“On multiple occasions, as much as 20 ft of debris has damaged, destroyed, and/or buried the bridge resulting in the isolation of the Lowell Point community,” reads a Corps report about the project. “Debris and sediment also have resulted in damage to other critical infrastructure in the vicinity, including the Alaska SeaLife Center.”
If everything works like it should, the diverted water should flow directly into the bay, Bower said. The new tunnel and diversion system that would be funded through money made available in the infrastructure bill would extend farther into the bay in order to mitigate risks to city infrastructure.
“It’s really crucial for us,” Bower said of the diversion system. “(Lowell Creek) will flood all of the downtown area without this tunnel.”
Bower said she thinks the risk posed to the city resonated with Murkowski when the lawmaker visited Seward and learned more about the project. It’s “pretty scary,” Bower said, to see city equipment heading into the water to try and remove debris during a major flood event.
The project’s hefty $185 million price tag is being covered by the Corps, which is also working with the State of Alaska. In return, the City of Seward will be responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the tunnel upon completion. The city has already set aside $3 million for upkeep.
A new diversion system for Seward is still in its design phase with the Corps, Bower said, but there’s been talk about extending the tunnel over or under Lowell Creek Road as a way to dump water farther into the bay. Until that project happens, Bower said heavy rains and resulting floods are inevitable.
“We do continue to get flooding events — it is just going to happen,” Bower said. “We can’t stop that but we have to do our best to mitigate them and we really believe this project is key in that mitigation.”
Coast Guard housing
Also in Seward, the U.S. Coast Guard was allocated $13.5 million through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to construct additional housing for guard members stationed in the area.
Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Juneau Commanding Officer Tracey Torba said via email that there are currently 12 U.S. Coast Guard members stationed in Seward. The Coast Guard’s existing barracks can house up to eight members, but no dependents, such as family members. The remaining Coast Guard members live in town.
Housing is an ongoing point of consternation in the City of Seward, where a small geographic footprint and varied landscape has strained an already tight market. The city is currently reviewing changes to the city policies regulating short-term rentals, such as those listed on Airbnb and Vrbo.
“Everyone knows that housing is seriously constrained in Seward, not just for Coast Guard but for everyone,” Torba said via email. “The Coast Guard wants to provide housing for our Coast Guard members in Seward to mitigate the stress/burden of finding suitable/affordable housing for themselves and their families.”
According to Torba, the scope of the U.S. Coast Guard housing project includes acquiring land and constructing houses on the land. She said the final number of houses needed won’t be clear until the completion of a housing market survey of analysis, expected to be completed within the next two to three months.
The Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit, Torba said, is the lead when it comes to the project’s planning documents. However, project ownership will transfer to the Coast Guard’s Facilities Design and Construction Center in Norfolk, Virginia, when planning documents are approved. As a result, Torba said it’s not yet known when a construction contract will be awarded.
Safe fish passage
On the west side of Cook Inlet, another, less expensive project, is eligible for money through the federal infrastructure bill. Just over $1.6 million will be made available through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish Passage Program to replace an undersized culvert on lower Tyonek Creek, near the Native Village of Tyonek.
Dr. Laurie Stuart is the executive director of the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with a stated mission of conserving, enhancing and encouraging the “wise use of natural resources.” The boundaries of the district include the communities of Tyonek, Beluga, Shirleyville, Skwentna and Alexander Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Efforts to replace the Lower Tyonek Creek Culvert, Stuart said, have been 10 years in the making and wouldn’t be possible without the money made available through the federal infrastructure bill. Still, those funds will only fund part of the total project costs. In all, the replacement of the culvert is expected to cost about $3 million.
Stuart said the project partners are unsure where the rest of the $1.4 million will come from, but that they are collectively waiting to hear back about various grants they applied for to put toward the project, including from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and others.
The impact of replacing the culvert, Stuart said, will not be limited to the site of the current culvert. Rather, she said a better culvert will restore salmon habitats 15.1 miles upstream. Up next on the groups’ to-do list is work on the upper Tyonek Creek culvert, which, when completed, will restore an additional 15.9 miles of fish habitat.
In Tyonek Creek, Stuart said, coho salmon, pink salmon, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout have been detected. When debris plugs up the existing culvert on lower Tyonek Creek, however, the ability of those fish to swim through is inhibited. Whenever the culvert becomes higher than the water line, it is similarly difficult for fish to pass through.
The diameter of the new passage, she said, will be 45 feet long. That’s what engineers estimate will accommodate the passage of fish through the area.
At stake with the replacement of the existing culvert at lower Tyonek Creek, Stuart said, is not just the ability of fish to move. Land stewardship, she said, generates economic opportunities for people in Tyonek and stable fish passages better protect the community’s roads.
“Salmon, of course, are subsistence food for the Native Village of Tyonek,” Stuart said. “I’d like to think, too, that increasing the salmon population that is available to the folks in Tyonek is increasing the availability of salmon in Cook Inlet itself, which is the most populated area in Alaska. It has a much broader impact.”
Stuart said the goal is to get the culvert replaced between June and August of 2023, but reiterated that the project is contingent on the additional grants. She pointed out that part of what makes the project so expensive is that materials have to be barged or flown to the site.
Replacing the culvert at Lower Tyonek Creek, though, is not standalone, Stuart said. The conservation district has helped renovate 12 culverts near Tyonek since 2012 and has more plans for work in the area. Project partners also include the Tyonek Native Corporation, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, all of which Stuart said bring a unique perspective to the work.
“This isn’t a one-off,” Stuart said of the culvert to be partially funded by the infrastructure bill. “This is the next one on our list.”
Tim Dillon is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, a private, nongovernment group that aims to foster and promote economic development on the peninsula.
Dillon on Wednesday described the organization as a “matchmaker” that helps connect local groups with funding opportunities like those made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. He said the bill is significant for the borough because of how many communities it affects and because it will tackle several large projects.
“It’s huge,” Dillon said of the bill’s implications for the Kenai Peninsula. “Because it gives you a great baseline and there’s something in it for just about everybody and it allows for some of those projects to start moving along and (for) some of the improvements to be made.”
The bill also comes, he said, at a time when people are rethinking what infrastructure is. He recalled a recent conversation with the owner of Mako’s Water Taxi, out of Homer, who wanted to remind Dillon that his operation should be considered infrastructure because it provides services and transportation to people across Kachemak Bay.
“People are starting to figure out where they fit into the big picture,” Dillon said. “I think COVID has helped define some of that stuff for everybody because I don’t know that people would have thought of Mako’s as infrastructure before then.”
An interactive map of projects in Alaska funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can be found on Murkowski’s website at murkowski.senate.gov/infrastructure-wins-for-alaska. More information about the bill can be found at whitehouse.gov/bipartisan-infrastructure-law. The full bill text can be read at congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684.