Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 4:00 PM on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kenai sees progress on bluff erosion project



By Molly Dischner
Morris News Service - Alaska

Kenai's efforts to mitigate bluff erosion are coming to fruition.

The city is looking to curb erosion on a mile-long stretch of bluff between the canneries and old town. The bluff needing stabilization is on the north side of the river mouth, from Mission Avenue east toward Kenai's senior center.

City Manager Rick Koch said the project has been the city's number one priority for the last 25 years, and is finally getting the green light.

"I fully expect (construction) to start in the next five years," Koch said.

That is because the Army Corps of Engineers is starting the final phase of pre-construction work.

"They're doing what's called a final feasibility study," Koch said.

That study includes a consultation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and an Environmental Impact Statement. The NOAA consultation is required because the mouth of the Kenai is considered critical habitat for beluga whales.

The city has agreed to pay its share of this study, and Koch said the undertaking shows a certain level of commitment from the corps. The EIS comes with a fuse, he said, so the project would have to be done within several years of the study's completion.

"I don't see the corps spending half a million dollars unless they think there's some construction money available," Koch said.

The project is currently estimated to cost about $40 million.

"I think that's a decent number for the next three to five years," Koch said, noting that a major change in oil prices could change the figure.

Under current law, the city would be expected to share the cost with the Army Corps of Engineers, paying about 35 percent of the cost.

"We have that money in hand," Koch said.

The city's contribution will be $14 million, including some in-kind items, like rock from the borough's quarry and land for the project.

The cost estimate has increased with time, Koch said. More accurate construction cost information and changes to the planned materials have contributed to the increase, Koch said. And just getting the project to this point was costly. The total spent has been nearly $2 million, most coming from the corps.

"The corps has spent a fair amount of money," Koch said.

The first two steps that body undertook were identifying the problem and looking for possible solutions, and then determining whether a solution was economically feasible. Those studies came down in favor of taking action on the bluff.

Koch said the economic feasibility study looked at a 50-year view, meaning that it considered whether the project's cost was less than the cost of not doing anything for 50 years.

Doing nothing would mean that erosion would continue at its current rate, about three feet per year. Over the course of the study, that meant a loss of about 150 feet.

That would take out about a dozen buildings in a 5000-foot stretch, including the senior center, Koch said.

"This has a better than 2:1 return on the money," Koch said.

That analysis considered the value of the lost land, buildings and roads, but did not look at decreased economic activity as a result of those losses.

Koch said the project could revitalize economic activity in that area.

Stabilizing the bluff could also make things difficult for some residents. Koch said he plans to meet with property owners in the near future to talk about the plans and the houses that will be impacted. Most residents will loose a small chunk of property, but the remainder of their land will increase in value, Koch said. The city is still considering its options to acquire the necessary easements, but one option is that those owners loosing just a little land will donate it. Where entire houses might be lost, Koch said the city would likely offer to buy the property and leave it as undeveloped green space.

Construction, when it starts, will likely be managed by the corps. Koch said it will probably take two winters to finish the project.

"I think it's probably a November to April kind of job," he said.

Essentially, construction will involve excavating a portion of the existing soil and replacing it with more stable materials for about a mile of bluff. The surface will also be reconstructed at a slighter grade to prevent it from slipping away. The plans include a walking trail along the stabilized bluff.

Koch said that this is the final item unfinished from the city council's priorities when he started his job in 2006. "I'd like to have this at least under construction," he said.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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