Partner collaboration results in innovative Kachemak Sponge Project

On Thursday, Dec. 7, community members gathered for the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust’s Annual Meeting to celebrate peatlands. Over 20 years of partnership between KHLT and the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, coupled with the City of Homer’s enthusiasm for green infrastructure to manage stormwater, and community support to conserve carbon in peatlands, has resulted in a significant project to purchase peatlands along Kachemak Drive for conservation and nature-based solutions to manage stormwater runoff.

Homer, like many other Alaskan coastal communities, is growing rapidly. While growth may bring community and economic benefits, there may also be detriments to the city’s core infrastructure. The effects of development in Homer most visibly manifest in the city’s issues with managing stormwater drainage. Development projects with poorly managed drainage practices can end up causing long-term damage to roads and other public infrastructure. This has notably resulted in significant damage to private property through flooding, bluff erosion, slope instability, and worsening water quality. These impacts affect the residents of Homer and the fish and wildlife people value.

Working collaboratively to address these issues and demonstrate how the community can continue developing in a more sustainable way, the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is partnering with the City of Homer to establish the Kachemak Drive Peatlands Water Quality Improvement Project or Kachemak Sponge as it is colloquially known. KBNERR is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reserve system, and is housed within the Alaska Center for Conservation Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The city and KBNERR have been successful in obtaining funding available to Reserves through the bipartisan infrastructure law, providing unprecedented investments in the resilience of our nation’s coastal ecosystems and communities. Through this funding, awarded to KBNERR and passed through to the City of Homer, roughly 55 acres of peatlands south of the Northern Enterprises Boatyard will be purchased, combining an effort to both conserve this critical habitat and implement a nature-based stormwater conveyance system.

The Kachemak Sponge is a new and highly innovative project that will demonstrate how natural peatlands can be promoted as nature-based solutions, also known as green infrastructure, for sustainably managing the built environment. Scientists with KBNERR have been researching and sharing science about the role that peatlands play in supporting the health of the area’s salmon for 20 years. Meanwhile, the City of Homer has been looking at peatlands as a possibility for supporting the city’s lacking stormwater drainage system. Healthy peatlands supply nutrients to salmon streams, mitigate flooding, and provide wildlife habitat. Many values that could be considered uniquely Alaskan are dependent on peat.

The new system of stormwater conveyance is based on a design from Finland, and will direct stormwater to the purchased peatlands to be stored and filtered. Peat is sponge-like, making it ideal for absorbing floodwaters, and its composition allows it to naturally filter silt-laden runoff. The stormwater that would otherwise be rapidly flowing over and eroding Kachemak Drive and the bluff above the bay will now be redirected and slowly diffused into the surrounding wetlands, simultaneously improving water quality.

The significant public benefit of this project has garnered the support of a wide range of stakeholders including Northern Enterprises Boatyard, Kachemak Moose Habitat Inc., Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough among others. This project will pose a unique opportunity for the city to be a leader in the world of nature-based solutions. Once complete, the Kachemak Drive Peatlands Project will be the largest-scale green infrastructure project implemented in the state, setting the stage for implementation all over Alaska. Even further, it will serve as a demonstration project for other cold-climate nature-based solutions across the country.

Katherine Schake is manager of Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Schake joined KBNERR as reserve manager this past summer. She brings two decades of diverse career experience working in both the private and nonprofit sectors in Alaska. A deep sense of stewardship has driven her work as a naturalist guide, coordinator for statewide salmon data synthesis working groups, and invasive species partnerships.