Kenai is seeking land while the Army Corps of Engineers has set a new timeline and reached a new preferred project design for bluff erosion mitigation work planned since 1999.
Between Homer and Nikiski, areas of the Kenai Peninsula’s west coastline wash into Cook Inlet at rates between 0.6 and 5.7 feet per year, according to a 2016 Kenai Peninsula Borough-commissioned risk report. A 2007 Army Corps of Engineers study put that loss at around 3 feet per year along the approximately mile-long bluff where Old Town Kenai overlooks the Kenai River mouth’s north shore.
For at least 18 years, the city of Kenai has collaborated with the Army Corps on plans to halt that erosion and prevent the loss of valuable residential and commercial property atop the bluff. Since Kenai made its first appropriation toward the project in 1999, the state, federal and city governments have spent $7 million on studies, designs and permitting, according to a October 2016 letter from former Kenai City Manager Rick Koch to Governor Bill Walker.
Koch wrote in his letter that the Army Corps pre-design process is expected to finish with a final feasibility report in August 2017, and the Corps has tentatively planned to begin construction in 2019.
For its part, the Kenai municipal government has been acquiring the bluff properties the project will need for construction. In fall 2016, Koch estimated the project would affect 34 properties with a total value of $70,400. By late 2016, 22 owners of properties near the bluff had got letters of the city’s intent to buy their land.
In many cases, “land” is an incorrect word. The receding bluff edge has overtaken property lines that were drawn decades ago, with the result that large portions of legal property now consist of bluff, beach, or riverbed. Many of these vanished or vanishing lands have low property values, and some are owned by estates and trusts. Several hold significant pieces of Kenai’s history.
One is that of the Kenai Bible Church, which has sat since 1940 atop the bluff in Old Town Kenai, where it owns roughly an acre of land — about a third of which now lies at the bottom of the bluff. Kenai Bible Church Pastor Vance Wonser said the eroded portion of land had held some trees and a parking lot.
The lost parking lot is the first and so far only one of the 22 target properties that Kenai has acquired. Kenai Bible Church donated it to the city in December 2016. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assessing Department valued the former parking lot property at $600. Because it had been separated from the rest of the church’s land by a street (since downgraded to a bluff-skirting bike path), it was relatively easy to donate.
“It’s not something we were getting use out of,” Wonser said of the collapsed property. “We were paying property taxes on it, and we thought there was just no point in keeping it. We thought it was something the city could use. Obviously if the bluff erosion project ever goes through it’s going to simplify things for everybody.”
A short way down the street from the church is the bluff-top land where Paul Karaffa Jr. said he has lived since the early 1940s, when he was about 6 years old. Karaffa’s stepfather, Joe Consiel, had built his inn and restaurant, the Bunkhouse, on this property in the 1920s, he said. Consiel’s bar, Kenai Joe’s, stood nearby. The Bunkhouse is gone, but Kenai Joe’s still exists, though it’s no longer owned by Karaffa’s family.
“Most of this stuff came from the canneries — the material and stuff when they tore something down,” Karaffa said of those old buildings.
Since that time, about an acre and a half has fallen off Karaffa’s property into the river. On the lost ground there had been a metal lighthouse, Karaffa said, for boats entering the river mouth. He remembers that he and his stepbrothers used to slide down the soft, sandy slope beyond it, down to the beach, and climb back up again. According to his memory, the bluff has not only come closer, but become steeper, harder and rockier as well.
“It was our playground,” Karaffa said of the bluff in his childhood. “We used to jump over the bluff and think nothing of it because it was all sand. If you did that now you’d break your neck … Now the clay base showed up, and the sand is gone.”
The 2007 Army Corps of Engineers analysis states that the bluff consists of two distinct layers: an alluvial deposit of fine, sandy material sitting on a firmer base of glacial silt. When the soft upper material falls down the bluff face, the river and the tide carry it away instead of allowing it to accumulate and gradually build up a less steep and more stable bluff.
The solution the Army Corps proposed in a 2011 preliminary project design would have moved sections of material from the top of the bluff to the bottom to create a stable slope, then shielded the bluff’s base with piled rock — “armoring the toe,” as previous Army Corps documents have described it — and planting it with stabilizing vegetation.
Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said that in a recently-completed report, the Army Corps considered the costs and benefits of five alternatives, which included doing nothing, re-routing the Kenai River, two variations of the “armored toe” design, and the cheaper and simpler project that the report recommends as the preferred alternative: building up rocky armor near the bluff’s base, then letting the natural fall of material — now protected — build up a more stable slope over time.
The savings of the slower approach are estimated between $14 million and $25 million. According to Ostrander, the present preferred alternative of placing the protective rock at the bluff’s foot is projected to cost $30 million, while the two alternatives that require moving material from the top of the bluff to the bottom cost $45 million and $51 million. These estimates are of total project cost, including design, permitting, and construction, Ostrander said.
During Alaska’s post-World War Two homesteading boom in the 1950s and 1960s, Karaffa said that buildings, trailers and quonset huts began to spring up along the bluff edge.
“A lot of that stuff is gone,” Karaffa said.
One such structure is his stepfather’s Bunkhouse. When the edge of the bluff approached it, the building was taken down and the material reused in the house Karaffa now lives in. Some of the building’s concrete foundation remains, but Karaffa said that is also now falling away. A metal pipe that once carried water to another previous building on the old bluff also remains, disconnected and sticking out of the present bluff-face at a slight downward angle. The erosion is now approaching a still-standing wooden outbuilding on Karaffa’s land, which he plans to tear down either this year or next.
Karaffa said he’s been contacted by the Kenai municipal government about selling the land and might consider doing so. In past interviews, Koch said the city would likely seek to subdivide properties like Karaffa’s to buy the collapsed portions needed for the erosion project and leave usable land in private hands.
In any case, Karaffa said he wouldn’t mind relocating — possibly down to Kasilof, he said, and “getting out of the city.”
Though the Kenai Bible Church has sought new properties when the opportunity arises — they made an unsuccessful $75,000 offer for Kenai’s closed bowling alley building when it was for sale in early 2016 — Wonser said they aren’t actively looking to move. The church building — approximately 61 feet from the bluff’s edge — hasn’t yet suffered any structural problems from the eroding ground. Responsibility, Wonser believes, sits with a greater authority than the city of Kenai or even the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s always a concern,” he said. “But our thought is that the Lord’s the one who controls the erosion and it’s his church, so that’s up to him to take care of. It’s not something we can do anything about.”