By Jenny Neyman
The approval of a cost-share agreement for a final feasibility study between the city of Kenai and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might only be an incremental advance toward someday constructing an erosion abatement project along the mouth of the Kenai River. But it’s a necessary step, nonetheless.
The city had been anticipating the agreement for about a year, and the city council has already provided authorization for the city manager to execute the agreement. When the document was received April 16, City Manager Rick Koch said it didn’t contain any surprises. It calls for a 50/50 split to conduct a final feasibility study on a bluff stabilization project. Koch said the preliminary cost estimate for the study is $227,000 from both the city and the federal government, though the project could cost as much as $637,000 in all. The city will be using funds from a state appropriation toward a bluff stabilization project.
Koch said that the feasibility study essentially coalesces and refreshes the several previous studies the Corps has conducted on the bluff erosion situation, including reports on socio-economic impact, historical and cultural resources in the area and National Environmental Policy Act documentation that supports an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The Corps also did a feasibility study, “to determine if the value of the areas that are being sort of saved from the erosion exceed the value of the cost of the project. There’s been a technical analysis, which defines the problem and explores solutions to determine if, in fact, the problem can be solved. And the results of that study were that, yes, the problem can be solved,” Koch said.
The actual study, now that funding for it has been approved, could take as long as two years, Koch said, and will provide direction of where to go from there.
“So they bring all of those things together. In this document they come to a conclusion — yes, all things considered, this project should move forward, or, yes, all things considered, this project shouldn’t. We’re pretty confident it moves forward, but it’s a necessary step in the process,” he said.
If the study concludes that the project should happen, it’s on to the funding phase.
“You talk to your congressional staff and members in the Corps and whoever has some influence into the decisions as to which projects receive Corps funding and then which don’t,” Koch said. “We have roughly the $12.5 million in hand for our share of the project. There is no federal money that has been appropriated for this project on the federal side, and we’ll have some work to do there.”
Koch said that the latest estimated price tag for the project is $43 million. The cost has done nothing but rise over the years, as the bluff has continued to erode at a rate of 1 to 3 feet per year, threatening property atop the bluff, including private homes, as well as the city’s multimillion-dollar senior center. The funding agreement references consideration of the problem as far back as the 1970s.
But there’s no telling how soon a project might be funded and construction could begin.
“It’s always tough to look into the crystal ball. Right now, it’s really difficult for Alaska given the present administration in Washington. We’re just not a priority. That could change. So it’s really difficult for me to say, ‘Oh, I think it’s a 50/50 deal, or I think it’s a 30/70 deal.’ There are so many variables that affect the answer to that question that change every election cycle,” Koch said.
Ten years ago, when Sen. Ted Stevens was in Congress and earmarks weren’t anathema, as they are today, funding likely would have been easier to secure, Koch said. But he thinks the prospects are better today than they were four years ago, thanks to a law Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed through that changes the way funding is distributed to Army Corps of Engineers projects. It used to be that all Corps projects nationwide were in the same queue together. But Murkowski’s bill divvied up a separate pot of money just for projects in Hawaii and Alaska.
“So rather than our having to compete with next hurricane in Florida, the city of Kenai competes with rest of the state of Alaska and Hawaii, which is quite a difference,” Koch said.