By Jenny Neyman
As a reason for being late to work, having a variable schedule and forgetting that it’s your show-up-an-hour-earlier-than-normal day may not be the best excuse. But finding a giant, gaping chasm in the road ahead of you is understandable.
That’s the situation Sue Evanson found herself in Sept. 19 as she was headed to work on Kalifornsky Beach Road. She works at Kenai Peninsula College and usually gets to work at 9 a.m., except on days when she trades off with a co-worker and needs to be there at 8 a.m. That was the belatedly realized case Sept. 19, so she already didn’t have time to lose as she started her commute. But as she and her northbound neighbors along the Kasilof end of K-Beach Road discovered, the road was closed by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, owing to a massive washout of the road at Mile 11.
“And that was what was doubly bad because I forgot about that the first day the road went out and I got down there and went, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m going to be late for work.’ And then I though, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m really late because I was supposed to be in at 8 this morning and now it’s 9 and now I have to backtrack,’” Evanson said.
A stream runs through a culvert under the road at Mile 11, about two miles south of the Albatross and right past the
entrance to the Marathon gas facility. With a major storm dumping record-setting rain on the central Kenai Peninsula that week, the stream had swollen beyond the capacity of the culvert. Where there’s water pressure, there — eventually, and often destructively — must be a way. In this case, built-up floodwater ate away at the already rain-soaked soil surrounding the culvert until the whole thing gave way, with the roadbed caving into the chasm below.
It was brand-new pavement, too, getting flushed into Cook Inlet, as renovations to K-Beach were just completed last year. The engineers, in redoing the road, just hadn’t expected that much water, said Rick Feller, spokesman for ADOT’s central region.
“With every storm event, depending upon where the rain’s coming down and where drainage is concentrated, you can have these things pop up on you. And that’s what we had happen there. For a typical storm event we would have been in great shape there. For this one, though, in this area, there was just an inordinate amount of rain that obviously wasn’t anticipated with the design, and, so, once that water becomes concentrated, despite our efforts to save the road, sometimes you just can’t hold those floodwaters back from eroding around the culvert, which is what happened here,” Feller said.
Historically, though, this is not the first washout to happen to this section of road. In 1990, the stream once again reclaimed its course, shucking off the
roadbed above it. That event took on a carnival-like feel, with residents gathering to “ooh” and “aah” over the destruction, said Alan Boraas, a professor at KPC who also lives in Kasilof and takes K-Beach to work.
“There wasn’t much to do in Kenai-Soldotna on a Friday night,” he said, estimating that between 50 and 70 people showed up that day to gawk at the hole.
This time, DOT blocked the road and shooed people away from getting too close, redirecting traffic to take the longer Sterling Highway route to work. That adds 10 minutes or so to Evanson’s commute, and even longer to her husband’s drive to work to Nikiski. That wasn’t so bad, she said, but with frost already starting to shroud the ground in the morning, she was getting nervous about the extra time on the roads come winter.
“With the weather changing I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, come on, hurry up, fix the road,’ but I didn’t think it would happen before the weather set in. I wasn’t looking forward to that longer commute. It was taking me longer than I’d realized having to go down the Sterling Highway with all that traffic and stuff,” she said.
DOT crews first had to wait for the water to recede before beginning work on the washout.
“That’s why the repairs didn’t start until Friday. They really had to wait until such time as the floodwaters were low enough to get in there and actually figure out what repair work needed to be done in the short and longterm,” Feller said.
Crews started constructing a gravel road bypass upstream from the washout and opened it to traffic with a pilot car Monday afternoon.
“I wasn’t expecting them to open at all for a long time, so that was a surprise. I was amazed,” Evanson said.
Repair to the regular road will take longer, though is on a rushed time frame. Feller said DOT is starting the bidding process now and hopes to have work complete by Nov. 15.
“They’re going to a very accelerated bidding period because of the urgency of the situation and the need to get repairs done before everything freezes up too solidly for the winter,” he said.
A new, larger-diameter culvert than the 8-foot one that washed out will be placed, then the process of laying and compacting soil will begin to rebuild the embankment, with the road being re-established and paved on top.
“Based on what we’ve seen this time the permanent repair is going to be a much more substantial improvement than what we had in there during the last repair job. We’re still working on the design but it is going to be something more substantial along the structural line of things in order to have a head wall that is going to withstand that volume of water coming out against it so that the washout around the culvert doesn’t happen again,” Feller said.
The record rains swelled streams and rivers throughout the central Kenai Peninsula, causing Gov. Sean Parnell to issue a disaster declaration for the Kenai Peninsula Borough on Sept. 21 and borough Mayor Mike Navarre to declare a state of emergency with localized flooding, particularly in the Seward area, but also along sections of the Kenai River. The state of emergency has receded with the floodwaters, and damage assessments are continuing.
In Kenai, there are two gaping reminders of the stormy fall weather. A large chunk along Peninsula Drive behind
Kenai Alternative School sloughed off into the Kenai River during last week’s storms. The resulting gap is about 60 feet wide and cuts back into the bluff some 30 feet. The area is a natural drainage point, said Rick Koch, Kenai city manager.
“There’s kind of a gully that goes through there and collects water from a fairly substantial area,” he said. “It all kind of drains that way. The ground just became super saturated and when that happens the weight of the ground itself convinces it it’s a liquid rather than a solid and whoosh, away it went.”
The land that sloughed off is an undeveloped lot, with a home situated just behind the side area. There was a culvert in place to help with drainage, but Koch said it appears that the drainage had dammed up at some point, and the resulting buildup of water was more than the sandy soil could take.
Farther down the bluff, a section of trail leading from Old Town Kenai down the bluff to the beach at the mouth of the river, via a footbridge at Meeks Crossing, also sloughed down the slope in the storms.
“Probably 30 feet sloughed down the bluff. I don’t think there’s any kind of detour opportunities or realignment
there. When things all get done raining, I think we will have to yard some material in there and re-establish that slope,” Koch said.
No remediation work is planned for the eroded spot farther upstream.
“There’s not a lot you can do for individual little blowouts. They’ll just blow out again. It takes a comprehensive solution for that mile of bank,” Koch said.
The city has been planning a bluff stabilization project along that mile of riverbank for well over a decade now. A design has been created by the Army Corps of Engineers and the city has secured its required 35 percent portion of funding required for the project — about $12.5 million. Kenai voters approved $2 million for the project, the state appropriated $3.5 million, the borough has committed $4.5 million in in-kind contributions — primarily through access to rock quarries — and there’s another $2.5 million in other in-kind contributions lined up.
“The project sits figuratively on the undersecretary of the Army’s desk. If she signs the document — called the final
feasibility study — then it moves forward into the funding queue, which all becomes pretty mysterious because they don’t have earmarks anymore. So rather than Congress being able to say, ‘We want this money spent on this bluff erosion project,’ just a bucket of money shows up inside the administration. We have to lobby Congress to try to get the money in the budget, but then we have to lobby within the Obama administration to see if they will direct some of that money to this project. It puts an extra step in it for us and it’s pretty difficult to compete straight up with heavily populated states,” Koch said.
There’s no telling when or if the project might be granted the approval and funding needed to proceed, he said, though he’s recently heard rumblings of good news through the Corps and the peninsula’s congressional delegation that the project is receiving some attention back in Washington, D.C.
In the meantime, the Kenai bluffs remain particularly vulnerable to wind, waves and water.
And along K-Beach, commuters will continue to be vulnerable to travel delays. Even with the temporary road open, drivers should expect delays while construction is ongoing. Evanson, for one, will leave a little earlier in the morning to make it to work on time. She’s not banking on the road washout as a good excuse.
“Not anymore, my boss heard about the road being open. I’ll have to be back to work at 8 tomorrow,” she said.