Kenai bluff erosion project inches forward

In the race between geology and bureaucracy that has constituted Kenai’s bluff erosion mitigation attempts, geology continues to win.

The 18-year-old project to halt the 3-feet-per-year erosion of the bluff beneath Old Town Kenai by laying a protective buffer of rock around the foot of the bluff may soon see the release of an Army Corps of Engineers planning document that would allow it to progress towards its tentative construction start date in 2019.

In 1999, the city of Kenai made its first appropriation toward a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, splitting the cost of the bluff erosion project — presently estimated to range from $31 million to $51 million — between the two entities. From 2011 to 2015, the project stalled as the Army Corps’ Alaska District sought federal funding for its half of a $654,000 final feasibility study, in which Corps officials would decide whether or not the project’s benefits outweigh its costs.

After the U.S Congress funded the Corps’ share of the study in February 2015, the two entities began the process leading up to the final feasibility study, which Army Corps District Commander Colonel Michael Brooks described in an August 2015 letter to then-Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. The first step, according to Brooks, would have been the draft feasibility study originally planned for public release in March 2017 with the submission of the final feasibility report in June and a signed director’s report in July.

None of these milestones will be possible until Corps officials choose which bluff erosion plan to pursue. Five possible projects are examined — and one selected as a preference — in the Army Corps’ tentatively selected plan document, required before the final feasibility report. National and state-level Corps officials presented a draft tentatively selected plan to Kenai Public Works Director Sean Wedemeyer in February, according to Army Corps of Engineers Spokesperson Dena O’Dell, but have yet to release the plan for the public comments required before it can be approved in the final feasibility report.

City Manager Paul Ostrander told Kenai City Council members at their May 3 meeting that “there seems to be some internal struggle between the (Army Corps) Alaska division and the district in Hawaii and the DC folks” delaying the public release of the draft feasibility report.

O’Dell said in a previous phone interview that the Corps’ national headquarters hadn’t approved the Alaska District’s draft tentatively selected plan because it did not present enough benefit to justify the expense of halting bluff erosion. O’Dell quoted Army Corps Alaska District Project Manager Ronnie Barcak, manager of the Kenai bluff erosion project, as saying that the Corps national leaders had decided that the project, as presented by the Army Corps Alaska District, had “a benefit-to-cost ratio, in accordance with national economic development, of less than one.”

In past bluff erosion presentations and documents, Kenai and Army Corps officials have stated that Kenai’s rapid bluff erosion threatens the streets, buildings and city infrastructure of Old Town Kenai, as well as the city-owned Vintage Pointe Senior Center, all of which sit along the mile of bluff top the project would seek to protect. A 2007 Corps information sheet estimated that Vintage Pointe needs to be about fifty feet from the bluff before its foundation becomes unstable; presently it’s about 125 feet from the bluff. An inventory that Army Corps officials presented in Kenai in May 2015 stated that within the next 50 years Kenai would lose 17 acres of land to bluff erosion, including 12 residences and 13 commercial buildings.

However, in order to designate the project a net benefit, national officials required the Alaska Army Corps to cite other kinds of benefits — cultural and historical assets. Army Corps’ national leadership decided that “cultural resource significance elaboration was deemed necessary,” O’Dell wrote in a March 2017 email.

“To justify the project they (Army Corps Alaska District officials) had to go back and say, ‘Hey, there’s cultural resources of significance in the bluff,’” O’Dell said.

Under U.S code, the names and locations of archeological sites aren’t made public during federal permitting for fear of drawing treasure hunters and vandals. However, in a letter to Alaska Historic Preservation Officer Judith Bittner, Army Corps of Engineers archeologist Shona Pierce refers to six Kenai bluff top locations listed in the Alaska Heritage Resources Survey database of historic sites. These include the historic Dena’ina village site uphill of the present Pacific Star cannery, and Old Town Kenai’s Showalter and Hermansen-Miller houses and Dolchok-Juliessen cabin.

O’Dell wrote that the Army Corps Alaska District officials had “identified two cultural significant areas” affected by Kenai’s bluff erosion and included them in the environmental and archeological appendices of the draft feasibility report they’d originally presented to the Army Corps’ national leadership. However, earning the national leadership’s approval required them to elaborate on the significance of these areas in a new draft of the report.

“It’s the ‘telling the story’ that must be fleshed out more in the draft main report,” O’Dell wrote of the improvements that national Army Corps leadership required from the Alaska District Army Corps officials.

Ostrander’s most recent Army Corps conversation was on May 8 with an official who told him that the national headquarters had accepted changes to the tentatively selected plan, making it ready for release when the Army Corps Alaska District completes revisions. The Corps will host a public meeting in Kenai after the tentatively selected plan document is released.

In a February interview, Ostrander said the draft tentatively selected plan document examines costs and benefits of five possible responses for the bluff erosion problem: doing nothing, re-routing the Kenai River, and three variations on the idea of laying rock around the bluff’s base — or “armoring the toe,” as the approach has been known in previous Army Corps documents. Ostrander said the report favors a plan to armor the bluff’s base, then let the natural fall of material — now protected — build up a more stable slope over time. This approach is estimated to cost between $14 million and $25 million less than other armored toe designs that also involve mechanically moving material from the top of the bluff to the bottom in order to reduce its slope.

The federal budget that President Donald Trump sent to the U.S Congress on Tuesday — which is planned to take effect October 1, 2017 and must first be approved by Congress — includes a $1 billion cut to the Army Corps of Engineers, equal to 16.3 percent of the Corps’ estimated fiscal year 2017 spending.

Funds for producing the Kenai bluff erosion’s final feasibility report have already been allocated in the federal government’s present fiscal year 2017 budget, Army Corps of Engineers Spokesperson Tom Findtner wrote in an email. The project would need its next funding allocation after the final feasibility report is issued, expected in April 2018, Findtner wrote.

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

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