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

By Christina Stauffer
SBCFSA Board Member 

Getting your money's worth

 


This letter is in response to comments made a couple of weeks ago regarding the Seward/Bear Creek Flood Service Area, the cost of maintaining the service area and the benefit to the community. As many of you already know, the SBCFSA was formed with the approval of more than 60 percent of the voters both inside and outside the city limits of Seward following the flood of 2002.

At that time, after a nearly 100-year history of repeated flood events, it was clear that more needed to be done to mitigate flood risk and improve planning in the Seward area. Meetings were held and the citizens, with support and encouragement from FEMA and Alaska Homeland Security, recognized the need for a single entity to coordinate the efforts of multiple jurisdictions and government agencies. In the beginning there was an office, a half-time secretary to answer phones and a volunteer board appointed by the KPB mayor. Other than being tasked with creating a Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan, the SBCFSA had no clear direction at first as to how best to fulfill their stated mission.

Since the SBCFSA is the only service area of its kind in Alaska, there was no template to follow and a very small operating budget to work with. It was determined that the best way forward initially was to assess community flood risk and mitigation needs, and to investigate the best way to answer those needs.

It was obvious from the beginning that there was no way the board could build flood prevention structures or even effectively dredge out the constant flow of gravel that clogs Seward rivers and streams to keep water flowing smoothly.

There are literally tens of millions of dollars of flood risk mitigation projects that should be done within the service area to protect all the infrastructure, homes and businesses. The board committed to pursuing funding from all possible sources for grants to address the most urgent projects outlined in the Hazard Mitigation Plan. Initially the board saved as much out of their budget as possible so that, should grant funding be found, the board would have matching funds (almost always required) on hand.

Initially it was not intended that the SBCFSA would get involved with actual building or dredging but urgent appeals from the public convinced the board to tackle a few small projects. The board quickly learned that planning, organizing and permitting for even very small projects is expensive and very time intensive and, sadly, offers only very short term benefit. Dredged stream beds in Seward can fill back up in only months and sooner if there is a flood event.

According to gravel and debris estimates determined by two different LiDAR studies of the service area, the amount of accumulation in service area waterways from 2006 to 2009 was over 390,000 cubic yards. The cost of removing 1 cubic yard of material and disposing of it legally is at least $12. Doing the math and averaging out year by year it would cost over $1.5 million annually to keep streams clear to maintain their level in 2006. That’s over six times the entire service area budget and dredging is far from the only mitigation needed in Seward.

So, given that reality and also given that the majority of the grants potentially available for flood mitigation will not pay for maintenance dredging, the board determined to spend its money more productively and on projects that will provide more benefit from the taxpayer’s dollars. One thing that became painfully clear as the SBCFSA and staff pursued grant funding was that the majority of grantors, especially FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers require studies to determine the cost/benefit of a proposed project and its projected effectiveness.

Studies cost money and take time. Repeated capital requests were also submitted by the board for funding from the State of Alaska every year. In the meantime, the SBCFSA directed its efforts toward educating and informing the public, helping with permitting, liaising between the Borough, the City of Seward, state and federal agencies and pitching in as much as possible during and after high water events. The board has also bought out property in very high risk areas to provide more undeveloped space for the floodplain and for safe stream drainage.

Several years ago the SBCFSA was fortunate enough to obtain the services of an expert hydrologist, Dan Mahalak. Dan splits his time between Seward and the other side of the peninsula and has proven invaluable in gathering and interpreting data on Seward streams, advising Borough, City of Seward, state and even FEMA on local flood data and science and responding to inquiries from Seward residents about their individual flood risks. Dan also manages the projects that the board undertakes. FEMA Region X has often remarked that the SBCFSA should be an example to other states of how a community can respond to the threat of flooding.

Recently the SBCFSA’s annual requests for assistance from the State of Alaska finally bore fruit. With the help of the KPB mayor’s office, a Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development grant in the amount of $1 million was awarded for flood mitigation. With public input, priority projects were identified both inside and outside the City of Seward and the projects are underway as I write. Following the old adage that money attracts money, the board has high hopes that the community benefit of these projects will encourage further grants.

At least one Corps of Engineers project has gone through the steps leading to a feasibility study for a levee at the top of Kwechak Creek to protect infrastructure and residents along Kwechak and Salmon Creek. If the project proves feasible the SBCFSA will partner with the Corps to get this levee built.

With increased costs and increased frequency of flood events in Seward, the SBCFSA budget has been strained to say the least. One possible solution to this problem would be to increase the current mil rate to bring in more revenue.

The board has operated on the second smallest service area mil rate in the KPB, 0.5 percent for 10 years. At this time the Borough mayor is studying the issue and no decision has been made.

I have worked for and with the SBCFSA for nine years and it is my personal opinion as a citizen that far from being a waste of taxpayer dollars, the citizens of Seward/Bear Creek service area have more than gotten their money’s worth from their flood board.

 

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