Letting nature do what it does best

New green infrastructure project to solve drainage issues

The Homer Public Works Department is beginning work to resolve a decades-old issue in Homer that continues to cause property damage and erosion: water drainage.

Last Monday, the Homer City Council heard a presentation from Jan Keiser, director of public works, about the Homer Green Stormwater Management System, which if implemented will use natural resources already found in Homer to fix many of the issues stormwater and drainage have caused in the area, such as poor water quality, property damage and bluff erosion.

“Drainage is damaging private properties, groundwater is triggering bluff erosion — we know that now. We didn’t necessarily know that 30 some years ago,” Keiser told the council. “Drainage is threatening slope stability … and silt-laden storm water is flowing into streams causing erosion and turbidity.”

“One of the values of these projects is that it not only improves water quality, manages storm water flow, but it mitigates bluff erosion in some of these areas where we’re talking about,” she later continued.

The first four projects are scheduled to deal with the current stormwater drainage issues in the Kachemak Drive/Kachemak City area, Baycrest area, Ben Walters area and Bishop’s Beach. More projects will be planned once the first four are successfully managed.

According to the Homer Green Stormwater Management System plan, the city will use existing wetlands, such as peatlands and fens like Beluga Slough, as sponges to diffuse water quantity while protecting the water’s quality before flowing into Kachemak Bay. The water will be directed from watershed areas into the wetlands, which will then store the water while the vegetation cleans the water of pollutants that are picked up along the way.

“People have been using plant materials to treat contaminants for decades, and that’s what we’re going to do with our water,” Keiser said.

“We’ll have the wetland with plants, water will come down, we’ll have a sediment tank, sediment will fall out (in the tank), water will flow out into the (wetland),” Keiser continued, explaining the process. “So we’ll capture the sediment (in the tank) so we can go clean it out every now and then, and then the water will go into the wetland, and that is what will take the contaminant out, which will then just dissipate into the lake.”

The stormwater management project is referred to as a “system” because it is a series of ongoing projects that will continue to serve the community as a whole as more drainage issues arise in the future, Keiser explained.

Erosion caused by groundwater in the Baycrest and Kachemak areas has caused significant damage to the bluffs, causing instability and loss of property. Private property damage in the Ben Walters and Bishop’s Beach areas have been caused by extreme flooding due to a lack of escapement for stormwater, especially seen in the West Homer Elementary School parking lot on Soundview Avenue after storms — between the Baycrest and Bishop’s Beach areas.

As explained in the Homer Green Stormwater Management System, the Bishop’s Beach stormwater treatment will use existing wetlands to store and treat water from Main Street and Old Town storm drains to protect the quality of water that flows into Beluga Slough and Kachemak Bay.

The Ben Walters stormwater treatment plan will diffuse the volume of water flowing from upstream watersheds into Belgua Lake to protect the quality of Beluga Lake, Beluga Slough and Kachemak Bay.

The Baycrest Area storm drain will carry drainage from the Baycrest Hill area to Bidarki Creek to reduce potential bluff erosion and slope instability, which will also protect the quality of water flowing into Kachemak Bay.

The Kachemak Drive/City area will use wetlands next to Kachemak Drive, also referred to as the checkerboard sponge, to store and treat drainage from industrial and commercial land and upstream watersheds to reduce the potential for bluff erosion on Kachemak Drive.

“By managing the water better, we can minimize adverse impacts and plan for them,” Keiser said. “… If we don’t do this, we’re going to continue to have bluff erosion, localized flooding and poor water quality.”

During the city council meeting, several community members, including Kyra Wagner, district manager of the Homer Water and Soil Conservation District, called in to support the watershed project.

“I do want to express some extreme gratitude to the city for even taking wetlands into consideration,” Wagner said. “… It’s pretty easy to feel powerless against such a movement, so to see the city taking on some large strategic plans for managing water at this time is extremely inspiring, and I hope we can help in any way we can.”

Studies and management plans concerning drainage have been conducted by the city and numerous environmental agencies since 1979; however, Keiser said the issue is that none of the research across various departments has been connected to implement a productive strategy.

“Many of these reports identified specific recommendations of things that should be done to mitigate the adverse impact of water on stability and coastal erosion, but there hasn’t been a lot of implementation of those recommendations,” Keiser said.

The Green Stormwater Management System takes into consideration all of the previous studies to improve drainage management plans and incorporate green infrastructure to better utilize the natural resources already present in Homer.

According to the 2020 Low Impact Development Planning study by Kinney Engineering, the city could save millions of dollars by using green infrastructure, as opposed to installing culverts and storm drains, Keiser told the council.

Currently the biggest challenge is acquiring the land to use as sponges before other development organizations move in.

“One of our biggest issues is that are in our window of opportunity to use the natural systems, to use green infrastructure to help address erosion and water quality, is closing because of development pressures. Some of the land that we would like to use for green infrastructure is being developed, or there are signs that it will be developed soon,” Keiser said. “We’re going to lose the windows of opportunity to address some of these issues.”

While the project is still in the conception stages, Keiser shared in a meeting with Homer News on Monday that if the necessary land can be appraised and purchased this summer, the sedimentary basins for at least two locations could be installed by the end of 2022. Currently, the city council must approve allocating funds for a land appraisal of the affected areas before public works can purchase the wetlands to begin the project.

“The good news is that the execution of these projects is not difficult because the biggest element of it is the land acquisition,” Keiser said. “Once we get the appraisal and funding and the buyer’s approval, we can buy the land and boom, there you go.”

Keiser will go before the council on Monday, Jan. 24 during the regular city council meeting to ask for approval of allocating appraisal funds to begin the process.

Currently, public works is securing funding from the state to begin the projects. The project concept was proposed to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which was accepted and moved to the state’s priority list for state revolving clean water funds.

Additionally, in a meeting last Friday with the Kachemak Bay Estuary Research Reserve and roughly a dozen other environmental agencies, the project was ranked most highly to receive land acquisition grants to move forward with purchasing the necessary wetlands. Homer Deputy City Planner Julie Engebretsen will be responsible for preparing the grant documentation to secure the funding.

“Nature always wins,” Keiser said. “We are never going to win if we take nature on as a battle. Nature is always going to win, so we need to find a way to work with it.”

For more information about the Homer Green Stormwater Management System, visit www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-worksession-185.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.

Jan Keiser, Public Works Department director, discuesses the Homer Green Infrastructure Management System at the Homer City Council worksession on Jan. 10, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)