The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

SMIC tops Seward’s federal priorities list


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Army Corps of Engineers projections illustrate the effects of possible breaches of the existing Lowell Creek diversion dam. The historic Lowell Creek flood plain runs right down Jefferson Street and during the last century flood events caused widespread damage along that path.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski recently asked the Seward City Council to narrow down the city’s federal legislative priorities to a list of three in order of importance. As has been its custom, Council had previously forwarded a rather more extensive list to their legislative lobbyist. In response to Murkowski’s request, the council held a work session Jan. 21 to determine the most significant priorities from the 14 projects formerly submitted.

During the half-hour discussion the council members came to a consensus to list as their number one priority, $17.9 million for extending the Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC) basin breakwater. This project has been slated to improve and increase ship moorage and ship repair capabilities.

The only person with reservations was council member Ristine Casagranda, who said putting SMIC development first would give the impression that the city cares more about getting new infrastructure than fixing what they already have. But council members Vanta Shafer and Marianna Keil argued that the new breakwater actually would complete SMIC development, a project the city began decades ago but never finished.

With memories still fresh of the Lowell Creek Tunnel depositing huge volumes of large rocks, gravel and silt near downtown that equipment operators found impossible to keep up with in the September flood, and the fear of the canyon’s levee failing, the council agreed to list its number two priority a request for the federal government to conduct a study to determine whether an alternative method of flood diversion in Lowell Canyon is feasible.

The levee stretches across Lowell Canyon and directs the flow of Lowell Creek into the tunnel. During flooding events water backs up into the basin created by the levee. This occurs because of the amount of raw material being pushed through the tunnel, impeding flow, along with the sheer volume of water. The natural, and former, channel of Lowell Creek runs down Jefferson Street.

At a meeting last spring officials with the Army Corps of Engineers that the study might cost more than $2 million. However, it would be a requirement before the corps could assume responsibility for the project beyond the proposed 2015 cut-off date that mandated that responsibility for the diversion system would revert to the city. The council resolution prioritizing Lowell Creek also contained proposed changes to the 2007 federal act establishing that cut-off date that would keep the Lowell Canyon diversion system under the corps management indefinitely.

The importance of the integrity of the diversion levee and it’s proper operation is critical. Providence Seward Medical & Care Center and low-income housing including several apartment buildings lie directly below the levee along Jefferson Street. A breach or overflow, caused by high water levels or plugging of the tunnel, has the potential to impact significant parts of downtown below Jefferson and Third Avenue without warning. The present design and operation of the tunnel causes the closing of Lowell Point Road during flooding events and covers large areas nears the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Alutiiq Shellfish Hatchery with debris which dams up water and creates further flooding.

The council picked as its third priority a plea for the Army Corps of Engineers to rescind its demands that the city pay them an additional $1.5 million, (added to the $2.66 million that the city already paid the corps) for adding to the length of the breakwater at the Small Boat Harbor due to a design deficiency discovered after the work was done. An official from the Army Corps admitted to the council that the section was built too short during construction of the second phase of the Small Boat Harbor breakwater. It had to be extended the following season after vessels in the harbor were damaged by strong wave action. Corps officials’ acknowledgement that they were at fault as to the construction yet disputed the city’s claims for damages. The corps sent the city the bill for the additional corrective work in extending the breakwater.

The council also would like to see authorization language added to the Water Resources Development Act, or elsewhere changed to declare that the South Harbor uplands area, where the city previously disposed of 3.5 acres of gravel dredged from the harbor, is “non-navigable waters of the United States.”

Presently, the federal government still terms the spit area, where restrooms and the new Mariners’ Memorial are located as “navigable.” That means the entire land mass is subject to removal by the federal government “for purposes of navigation servitude,” and cannot realistically be further developed. The council hopes that this action can somehow be fashioned into a single item, connecting it to the third priority listed.

Former Seward Mayor Willard Dunham said the council was wasting its third priority, which could be accomplished privately through lobbying the congressional delegation. He said he would have chosen the Alaska Railroad Corporation Transportation Bill asking for $12.8 million for extending and improving the Alaska Railroad Freight Dock in Seward.

Council member Bob Valdatta, a bus driver, also hoped the council would include $2.9 million in engineering improvements to help prevent erosion along Lowell Point Road. Other projects left off the Federal Priorities List were funding of a sea level rise and climate change study, repairs of downtown streets and sidewalks, and funding to operate the Alaska marine mammal strandings network.


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