Bluff Collapse Threatens Alaska Property

By RASHAH McCHESNEY | October 11, 2012

For three years Gary and Darlene Kernan said they have watched water collect on their Alaska bluff property during heavy rainfall and each spring when the snow melted.

It was a nuisance, watching the water creep up their lawn and into the garage, but they didn’t expect that would all end as drastically as it did three weeks ago when the water finally overwhelmed their lawn and found its way into the Cook Inlet – taking about 50 feet of their backyard with it in the process.

But, the collapse of the bluff is just the beginning of the Kernan’s problems as the process to shore up their yard can involve multiple regulatory agencies, permits and months of waiting before anything can happen.

“What’s going to happen is it’s just going to keep giving way, giving way. Every spring it’ll collapse some more. We had a nice place and now we don’t have a nice place, we have a dangerous place,” Gary Kernan said. “Once you start the erosion, it won’t stop.”

The Kernans share a fence line with CH2M Hill just off the Kenai Spur Highway and the water flows onto the Kernans’ property during times of heavy rainfall.

When their bluff collapsed around midafternoon on Sept. 19, Darlene said she ran over to the company’s gates and asked for help to alleviate the water flow, fearing the couple’s property would continue to collapse during the heavy rains.

The family’s gazebo, once several feet from the edge of the property, was within a foot of the sagging cliff face, and Darlene wanted to make sure it didn’t follow the piles of dirt tumbling down onto the beach.

“This is our livelihood,” she said as she walked along her backyard property where orange cones and large signs warn people away from the edge. “This is how we make our income and that’s dangerous. I don’t even want my daughter over near that area. How do you know it isn’t going to fall out from underneath you? You can’t.”

As she spoke, Kernan’s voice broke several times.

“You can step over here and feel the vibrations of the water going over the bluff,” she said.

The Kernans operate a lodging business and rent portions of their home to clients as well as turnaround employees from local oil companies.

Several people stood by and watched as two employees from CH2M Hill returned to the company’s lot after hours to redirect the water onto their own property.

Gary McMillan, a manager at the company’s Kenai property, said the crew dug trenches to divert the water away from the Kernan’s property. They put a pump in that pumped the water into the vegetation on the back of their property.

Even that process didn’t mitigate all of the damage; Darlene said a portion of the company’s bluff collapsed as well.

Diverting storm water from an industrial area technically requires a permit from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, one that CH2M Hill would need to apply for if they were to keep a pump on the property to permanently divert water away from the Kernan’s property.

Chris Foley, compliance manager for the DEC, said the department tends to give people some leeway during flood events and wouldn’t normally go after a company for diverting rainwater during an emergency, especially if it were away from a residential area.

“Most of the storm water conveyance systems were never designed to handle the sort of rainwater we’re seeing,” Foley said. “It has to go somewhere. Normally this wouldn’t be an activity that would be permitted, you can discharge storm water but you have to treat it first.”

In the meantime, CH2M Hill’s insurance company is meeting with the Kernan’s, Gary said, to determine what, if anything, can be done to prevent further erosion.

Dave Casey, Kenai field office supervisor at the Army Corps of Engineers, said certain types of bluff erosion mitigation work would need a permit from the Corps.

The permitting process can take a long time, but Casey said there are certain kinds of permits that are expedited.

“We have a permit called a nationwide permit for bank stabilization that people could possibly qualify for,” he said. “It’s a really common permit on the Kenai River. There are literally hundreds of property owners along the river that have that permit.”

The Kernans in the meantime are keeping everyone away from their bluff.

“It should have lasted through my lifetime, my husband’s and my daughter’s,” Darlene said as she pointed at the gaping hole in her yard. “That’s ridiculous and it shouldn’t have happened.”

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