Kenai moves forward with bluff stabilization design

Jun 26, 2020

A woman walks along the Kenai beach beneath the bluffs in this June 2020 photo.

The city of Kenai has been working on a way to stabilize its eroding bluffs for nigh on four decades. The city is now in the final phase of pre-construction design before being able to lock down funding and potentially get the project on the ground.

The bluffs that the city of Kenai sits on have been eroding, badly, for years. As the groundwater goes out, it pushes material out of the bluff to the bottom, where the river perpetually washes it away, accelerating the erosion. If the material falling out could build up, it could establish a slope over time that plants could grow on, making a more stable bluff that could in turn protect the buildings on top from tumbling into the river.

The project the city is working on with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would set up a berm with rock shield at the bottom to help establish that slope. The Corps finished its feasibility study in 2019 and is getting ready to move into the pre-construction design phase. The city is getting a head start on it this summer through a memorandum of understanding with the Corps.

Essentially, it allows city employees to start doing some of the work for the design and provide it to the Corps. City manager Paul Ostrander said it’s the first big movement for the project in a while.

"This is a significant step forward," he said. "This is the first time that design work will have been done on this project for decades. We are proceeding, and it’s been painfully slow at times, and we’re continuing to make progress, and this is the next big step forward."

Ostrander said the MOU will help speed up some of the work that employees can do and potentially lower the cost.

"Essentially, what the MOU allows us to do is provide any work that would be needed to complete the design," Ostrander said. "That certainly includes surveying work, geotechnical work... We will have to work with the Corps to determine how far we can take the design through this MOU. It could be that once we get beyond surveying and geotechnical work we could actually begin the design of the project. The key is that any of the work that we do needs to follow their specifications to make sure that it’s fully reimbursable."

The most recent iteration of the project started in 2011, when the Kenai City Council asked the Corps of Engineers to work toward a feasibility study for a bluff stabilization project. For a variety of reasons, civil projects can take a long time, but a big one is funding. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Civil Works Project Management in Alaska Bruce Sexauer said the availability of funding both from Congress and from local sources can play a role in how long projects take.

"You think about all the tough things Congress has figure out how they’re going to fund, whether it’s highways or education, or water resource projects or whatnot," he said. "We are definitely dependent upon funding, and that’s largely the reason why things will take a longer period of time—is the result of funding availability. We’ve been creative and we’ve transferred some money back and forth from various projects that have been completed over into this one in order to move this one forward."

Sexauer said the Corps pre-engineering design phase can take 12-18 months, and they’re expecting to sign the agreement to start that phase this fall. The MOU with Kenai will allow the city employees to gather data this construction season, though, rather than waiting until next summer, which could speed things up, he said.

The Corps has made agreements like this before with municipalities to work on projects. It has taken a long time, but Sexauer said they know how important it is to Kenai to keep this project moving.

"I think it’s important to state that the Corps of Engineers knows that this is an important project for the City of Kenai, and in partnership with them, we’ve developed a sound solution that will help them with that erosion problem on that bluff," he said. "It is a difficult problem to be addressing. We look forward to working with the City of Kenai more and more on this. We also look forward to Congress funding our project and being able to get this into construction."

Depending on the availability of federal funds, the city of Kenai would have to provide matching funds. Ostrander says the city may look to a bond package that could be issued in fall 2021, to allow construction to go forward as soon as 2022.

Click here to see the Corps of Engineers 2012 technical paper with information about the project, and click here to see the City of Kenai's webpage about the project.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.