Kenai acquiring land for bluff erosion

Kenai’s municipal government is steadily buying the land necessary for a planned mile-long rock berm meant to halt the three-feet-per-year erosion wearing away the ground beneath Old Town Kenai, while its federal partners in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carry out the internal planning needed to authorize the project.

The Army Corps is scheduled to finish its final feasibility study of the project in April 2018, allowing design in 2018 to 2019 and construction soon after. The Army Corps and Kenai have been formally collaborating on halting the erosion since 1999.

On the city’s side, administrators have been working on acquiring the 24 parcels of land that the berm will sit on. Much of the land involved consists of properties staked on the bluff-top during Alaska’s post-World War II homesteading boom. Because the bluff has significantly eroded since then, many are now at the bluff’s bottom or in the Kenai River’s mouth. For landowners with property partially fallen over the bluff, the eroded sections are subdivided and sold to the city separately from still-habitable bluff-top land, which will remain in private ownership.

“The area we’re looking to acquire is from the top of the bluff seaward,” said Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander. “That’s the only area we need to acquire to support construction.”

To date, Kenai has acquired six of the necessary 24 parcels. The Kenai City Council made decisions about the land purchases, including setting a maximum purchase price per property, in a closed executive session at their Nov. 1 meeting.

The latest bluff erosion project cost estimate is $32 million, Ostrander said, making Kenai’s 35 percent share $11.2 million, with the rest funded by the Army Corps. Of Kenai’s portion, about $6 million is currently covered by a $4 million state grant — from which the land purchases are being made — and $2 million in voter-approved bonds. Ostrander said the city has “a multitude of different avenues to potentially cover” the $5 million gap, including another bond sale and other grants.

Though the state government — running budget deficits up to $3.7 billion since 2015 — has decreased the money it gives to municipalities in recent years, Ostrander believes the state may also be a source of future funds “because it is a federal match grant.”

“So the state recognizes that for every 35 cents they put in, the feds are going to match 65 cents,” Ostrander. “There’s a good return on your money, so if the state is looking to spend any money anywhere, this project would be attractive in some ways.”

Army Corps progress

On the Army Corps of Engineers’ side of the project, the next step is a meeting called an Agency Decision Milestone — which Ostrander said is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 20 — between the organization’s Alaska District and Washington, D.C.-based national headquarters, in which the national leadership could approve the project for the final feasibility study that precedes the design phase.

The national leadership may not approve the project if they have unanswered questions about it, requiring another research period and another later meeting.

“The eventual, final document we’re looking for is a signed director’s report, which is still scheduled for April 2018,” Ostrander said. “… Everything we’ve been going through at this point is just the feasibility report, to basically show that this project can qualify for federal funding for design and construction. When you get the signed director’s report, they’re saying ‘this is a project that meets all the requirements of an Army Corps of Engineer’s project, and you can proceed with the design.’”

To move forward from that point, the Army Corps will be need another fund appropriation from the U.S Congress to cover its share of the project.

“There will be a lot of interaction between the city and our congressional delegation and others to try to secure funding for this project,” Ostrander said.

Military aid?

Once the project is declared feasibile and a design is created, crews can start moving rock to the base of the Kenai bluff. Under the current schedule the construction is expected to last from 2020 to 2022. U.S military service members may take part in the work.

On Sept. 20 the Kenai city council unanimously approved an application to the U.S Department of Defense offering work on the bluff erosion project as a potential training activity for U.S military units.

The Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training Program allows the military to use work on civilian public and nonprofit projects as training in engineering, planning, logistics, and public health. The potential military contribution of personnel and equipment could lower the project’s costs.

Ostrander said the Department of Defense officially accepted Kenai’s application to the program on Oct.12.

“What it does is advertise our project to all branches of the military, and they look to see if our project would meet their training needs,” Ostrander said. “If one of the branches of the military feels like it would meet their training needs, they’d reach out to the city and say they want to work on this project.”

Ostrander said Elaina Spraker, Kenai Peninsula Regional Manager for the office of U.S Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), had brought the program to his attention, after previously discussing it with Kenai’s former city manager Rick Koch.

Spraker said she learned about Innovative Readiness Training on a visit to Kodiak, where Marine Corps reservists have been working under the program with the island’s Old Harbor Native Corporation on various infrastructure projects.

The Old Harbor work is the program’s largest project, Spraker said, but she believed Kenai’s bluff project would take that place if selected for work. The Marine reservists in Old Harbor are working alongside civilian contractors, and the military would likely do so in Kenai as well, Spraker said.

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

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