Corps of Engineers, Kenai to share cost of bluff erosion study

After two days of meetings in Kenai City Hall between Kenai administrators and regional and national officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, the two parties presented an agreement to share the cost of a study crucial to a collaboration between Kenai and the Corps to halt bluff erosion.

The final feasibility study funded by the agreement will be one of the final steps in the Corps’ pre-construction process for a plan to shield 5,000 feet of eroding bluff in Old Town Kenai with rock. The city has said that protecting Kenai’s bluffs, which the Corps has estimated are eroding at a rate of three feet per year, has been a high priority since the early 2000s.

The cost-share agreement, presented May 5, divides the $654,000 cost of the study by 50 percent between Kenai and the Corps.

The Kenai City Council voted to enter the agreement in 2011, but the Corps has been unable to sign it until recently, due to a lack of federal funding. The federal House and Senate appropriations committees gave the Corps permission to fund its share of the agreement in February 2015. 

With funding arrangements nearing completion, the final feasibility study could be accomplished within two years, Army Corps Project Coordinator David Martinson said.

“We’re looking at the potential for an approved report in August of 2017,” Martinson said. “That’s probably the most sure timeline I have.”

Martinson declined to speculate on when construction may begin on the project.

“To be honest, that is really out of my hands,” Martinson said. “Because we’re at the mercy of a nation that is struggling with a pretty incredible debt, with a project load that they’re trying to accomplish so most likely — no offense, but the community of Kenai doesn’t weigh very high from the national standpoint.”

Although Kenai and the Corps will split the cost of the final feasibility study, Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said Kenai will have a 35 percent share, worth approximately $15 million, of the estimated $43 million total cost of the project. The Corps will assume the rest. Koch said that Kenai presently has $12 million worth of assets dedicated to the proposed bluff protection project, including state grants, money raised by city bonds, and quarried rock to be donated by the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Koch said his only concern about the city’s share of the cost is the state grant funding, of which he estimated that between $1.7 million and $2 million may lapse next year.

“An appropriation is only good for five years, and after 5 years if you haven’t spent it — whoosh, it goes back into the general fund, or it has to be put back into the capital fund and re-appropriated,” Koch said. “This year they (the state Legislature) didn’t do one (re-appropriation). Because of the financial situation, any extra money that comes back from expiring appropriations, they suck it back into the general fund.”

Koch said that persuading the Legislature to re-appropriate the lapsed bluff-erosion funding will be one of his tasks in the future.

In an interview following the presentation, Martinson said that the preceding two days of meetings were part of a Corps of Engineers procedure called a scoping charette, meant to discover any missing information necessary before beginning the study, to provide information to the project’s reviewers, and to define alternative solutions that should be considered in the final feasibility study. As an example, he said that the final feasibility study will consider the possibility of relocating endangered buildings and infrastructure along the bluff face, which may be cheaper than armoring the bluff’s base.

“There are several alternatives we are going to evaluate besides the one described in the technical report,” Martinson said.

Martinson said the planning charette found that sufficient information had already been gathered on the erosion problem.

“The existing information we have in this technical report should supply what we need,” Martinson said. “So from there, we’ll write it up, tell the story — why we’re choosing this one, and why not another one.”

Koch, who participated in the charette, said that much of the discussion was aimed at the demands made by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, another process that will have to completed before construction can begin.

“A lot of what got accomplished at the charette has to do with satisfying some of the NEPA document requirements,” Koch said. “You look at all of the options, rather than focus on something early on. We talked about moving the mouth of the river another place, talked about different kinds of groins and pier dikes. There was a real wide range of discussion about habitat issues, about belugas. A pretty full couple of days talking about lots and lots of things.”

Martinson, who said he has been working on the Kenai bluff erosion project since 2003, described the upcoming study as a turning point.

“Where before we were limited in what could do, what we could evaluate, now we can get all the information, present the argument to decision makers with the feasibility report,” Martinson said.

Ben Boettger is a Peninsula Clarion reporter.

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