By Jenny Neyman
For Kenai’s mile-long bluff stabilization project along the mouth of the Kenai River, the easy part will be building the thing. And that’s saying something, because construction will be no easy task — piling giant boulders to armor the toe of the bluff, plus re-sloping and revegetating the bluff face and installing drainage and erosion-control systems throughout.
But compared to the process of getting approval and funding for the project, construction will be a piece of cake. The city has been actively pursuing a fix to the 3-feet-per-year erosion problem for 30 years, and the estimated price tag for the project has risen in that time from a lowball $10 million to the current $43 million.
“So, you think about a century ago there was a football field out here. But you can see here’s the senior center and it’s really riverside property in 2053, and there’s a loss of improvements and properties along here,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, who moderated an open house at city hall May 6 to update the public on the project.
There wasn’t any great news to share — that a construction date had been set, for instance — but there was the good news that progress is being made.
“We will continue to be diligent. I know the council, as I’ve told you, has year after year after year, identified this as number-one priority project … especially since we are slowly moving forward and the Corps is involved in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Koch said.
The city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently executed a funding agreement to go ahead with a final feasibility study on the project, which will coalesce all previous studies, prepare documentation for National Environmental Policy Act permitting, and come to a final recommendation on whether or not an erosion abatement project should be built. That should be finished in August 2017. And at that point, assuming the conclusion is to build the thing, the process to obtain federal funding will begin, said Dave Martinson, a representative with the Corps.
“Because I’m sure next thing that you’re wondering is, ‘OK, when will something be built? When will construction happen?’ And, to be honest, that is really out of my hands, because we’re at the mercy of a nation that is struggling with a pretty incredible debt, with a project workload that they’re trying to accomplish. So, no offense, but the community of Kenai doesn’t weigh very high, as you can tell, from a national standpoint. … With us doing as much as we can to show the importance of this we’re going to present that argument,” Martinson said.
But it’s not as simple as the city getting in a queue for funding and waiting its turn. There are timelines that could sour if the project waits too long. Portions of the final feasibility study are only good for three or four years, and would need to be updated if the project isn’t funded by then.
The money the city has secured for its portion of the project could be in jeopardy, too. The Alaska Legislature appropriated funding, but if it isn’t used soon the money will need to be re-appropriated, and given the budget crunch the state has been in lately, that’s not at all a sure bet.
“An appropriation is only good for five years, and after five years if you haven’t spent it — whoosh, it goes back into the general fund or it has to be put in the capital budget and reappropriated. This year they didn’t do a one of them. Because of the financial situation, any extra money that comes back on expiring appropriations — whoosh, they suck it back into the general fund and re-appropriate it on something else. So next year we’ve got $1.7 million or $2 million of this that will time out, and that will be one of my tasks to make sure that the governor and legislature will re-appropriate this back to this important project,” Koch said.
But there are some hopeful spots. For one thing, the city does have its local contribution to the project secured, which is a step ahead of other projects that come across the Corps’ desk. And the fact that the final feasibility study was approved is a good sign, as it took years of federal wrangling and a change in federal legislation governing how such studies would be funded for that to even happen.
Plus, there’s the city’s track record of making this project a priority. Councilman Tim Navarre says that isn’t going to change.
“Well, you’ve noticed the city doesn’t take no for an answer, so we’re going to get it within the three years, I can tell you,” Navarre said.
Mayor Pat Porter said she’d do everything she could to see the project advance.
“When would you like cookies?” she said.
The open house drew some questions from the 20 or so attendees. Why doesn’t the city just go ahead and build something, instead of wading and waiting through the federal process? Because there’s still a federal process involved, Koch said, in order to get the permits and permissions necessary to do work along the riverbank. At least this way the Corps is going through the permitting process internally, rather than the city attempting to do it all on its own.
What about property beyond the one-mile scope of the project? Those owners are essentially on their own.
“At this point in time there is not a program the city has that will provide relief for those properties that are on that end of Toyon Way. This is a tough reality of these situations that happen, but there’s a buyer beware component of where people choose to buy and where they choose to live,” Koch said.
When previous city councils decided to pursue a bluff erosion wall, it wasn’t to protect private homes and property from crumbling into the river, it was to save cultural and historical sites in Old Town Kenai, as well as the city’s significant investment in the Kenai Senior Center. Over the years, private property assets have been damaged and destroyed by erosion, and other owners have paid to move their homes back from the bluff, all without compensation from the city.
Could the project be completed in stages? It could, Koch said, but there might not be a benefit to doing so. Approval must be granted before any work can be done, and at that point mobilizing for construction in several phases might be more expensive than mobilizing once, but the city might at least do a prephase of construction — securing rock and staging it nearby, for example.
The big, $43 million question, was, what is the chance the project ever happen?
Martinson had no definitive answer.
“I can say this, that without this study, the answer is zero. With this study, it is definitely in the list, which doesn’t give you any comfort at all, I’m sure. But, I think with the funding and the way I’ve seen Congress work, … they are overcoming this and they’re still trying to be responsible with the funding and the budget but at the same time they still recognize there are a lot of things that need to be done here in the U.S. and we do have agencies that can do that work, so this is the way to do it, to get yourself eligible,” he said.
Martinson said the city can expect to see more movement on the project now that the final feasibility study can commence.
“Now you should be seeing a little more action, information flowing back and forth, different checkpoint meetings. There’s going to be public involvement, we’ll say, ‘Here’s what we think,’ and get your input, as well,” he said.
Koch said the city, for its part, will keep pushing forward.
“It’s an exciting project. It moves at a glacier pace forward, but we’re in a place we’ve never been before,” he said. “A lot of good work has been accomplished and the Corps is engaged in this activity, the final feasibility study, so it is moving forward.”