Kenai bluff project gained ground in 2017

In 2017, the mile of bluff between Old Town Kenai and the Kenai River mouth may have receded three feet — the amount of ground lost yearly to erosion there, according to U.S Army Corps of Engineers estimates — but the collaboration between the Army Corps and Kenai’s city government to halt the erosion made some significant gains. This year the Army Corps completed a long-delayed study that could lead eventually to construction of a rock berm at the base of the bluff.

With valuable residential and commercial bluff-top property threatened — the Army Corps has estimated a $22.58 million loss in economic value if erosion goes unchecked over the next 50 years — Kenai has identified the bluff as a priority problem for roughly 40 years, and made its first appropriation toward the present Army Corps collaboration in 1999. Though the project has stalled in the past for want of federal funding, 2017 saw the completion of a key preparatory study, the emergence of a new project plan, and a new timeline that would issue a construction contract in June 2020 and complete work in 2022.

In July, the Army Corps completed a feasibility study that had been stalled for want of funding since 2011. Considering the cost and benefits of six variations on the project, the Corps is now focusing on a lighter and cheaper plan than those it has previously considered. Rather than regrading and re-vegetating the entire slope, the present plan would only place a berm along the bluff’s base. Though the July 2017 study concluded that the cost of halting the erosion beneath Old Town — $32 million under the present estimate — would be more than its economic benefits, it justified the project on the basis of non-monetary benefits such as “public health and safety, local and regional economic opportunities, and social and cultural value to the community,” according to the report text.

With a project design tentatively selected, project leaders are aiming to hit their next target in June 2018: a report signed by the Army Corps’ director, which would allow the Corps to begin detailed planning and design. To pay for that work, the Army Corps will need the U.S congress to give another appropriation of federal money to 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,” said Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander, speaking of how the city would pursue the bluff project at that point.

For its part, the city of Kenai spent the year buying land below the bluff that the project will need. Previous Kenai city manager Rick Koch laid out a plan to purchase 24 privately-owned bluff properties — many of which now exist only as lines on a map, having fallen into the Kenai River bed since they were platted — before his resignation in January. By November, his sucessor Ostrander said the city had acquired six.

Another move the city made in 2017 was to invite the U.S military to participate in the project’s eventual construction. In September, the city applied to the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training Program, which allows military units to work on civilian public and nonprofit projects as a way to train for engineering, planning, logistics, and public health tasks. The potential military contribution of personnel and equipment could lower the project’s costs.

The Department of Defense accepted Kenai’s application to the program in October. Now it will be available to military leaders looking for training opportunities. Elaina Spraker, the Kenai Peninsula Regional Manager for the office of U.S Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), brought the program to Ostrander’s attention. She said that Kenai’s bluff erosion project would be the Innovative Readiness Training Program’s largest, if military leaders decide to work on it.

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