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

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Funds secured for Lowell Creek Tunnel upkeep, no fix in sight


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

The devastating flooding in September 2012 wreaked havoc on the Lowell Creek Tunnel area.

The Lowell Creek Tunnel is a problem. That fact nobody disputes. How to fix the problem, and who should fix the problem, is still up for debate. The good news is that $300,000 has been approved for maintenance of the current tunnel in the 2015 Energy and Water Development funding bill in congress.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee, didn't just get her colleagues to include the Lowell Creek Tunnel on the list of harbor needs in Alaska, she was able to add critical language to the bill that keeps the tunnel problem on the priority list for future funding.

"Senator Murkowski successfully added language into the funding bill encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study of alternative methods for flood water diversion," said Murkowski in a statement released by her office.

The specific language in Murkowski's bill reads: "The committee recognizes the current problems with the existing Lowell Creek Tunnel and encourages the Corps to undertake a study for an alternative method of flood diversion for Lowell Canyon."

Curt Biberdorf, public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, says language about "encouragement" began in 2007. The 2007 water bill gave the Corps authority to investigate alternative methods, he said.

"There are a lot of ideas out there," said Biberdorf, "But there is no funding at this time to investigate them."

Biberdorf said the $300,000 referred to in the 2015 Energy and Water Development bill is related to maintenance only for the current Lowell Creek Tunnel configuration.

For the time being, and for the next 7-9 years, it is the Army Corps of Engineer's responsibility to manage the Lowell Creek Tunnel, said Seward Mayor Jean Bardarsen, because the Corps currently has ownership over the tunnel.

"The Corps is supposed to figure out a solution," she said. "But, we are happy the funding is in the 2015 bill to manage what we do have."

Other Alaskan towns, areas and organizations fared better than Seward in the Energy and Water Development bill. The Homer Harbor received $520,000 and $3.55 million was allocated for Chena River Lakes. Ninilchik Harbor received $319,000 and Dillingham Harbor was awarded $1.14 million.

City Manager Jim Hunt said he has not been officially notified that $300,000 is actually appropriated, or in the bank, but feels confident that the legislature knows the tunnel is a disaster waiting to happen and it needs, at the very least, regular maintenance. He confirms that no funding has been appropriate for a study of alternative solutions. At the moment, there is no forward momentum.

"This is a slow moving boat," said Hunt. "We know, just based on the last round of storms, that a flooding disaster is more likely to happen than an earthquake here. It's not a matter of if, it's when."

In May of last year, the Army Corps of Engineers painted a bleak picture for the city when it revealed several potential flooding scenarios to the city of Seward, none of them good.

"The Corps has tried to make this entirely a city problem responsible for fixing it, but we said, 'oh no,' you built it and you own it,'" said Hunt.

But Hunt said he is feeling a bit more optimistic since he and other city leaders met with members of the South Pacific Corp headquarters.

"We had a really good experience with them," he said. "There's been a lot of turnover there and the new department heads listened more intently this time around about the possible catastrophe that may happen if the tunnel problem isn't fixed."

Hunt said he doesn't want there to be a lot of time spent finger pointing, rather, he wants time to be focused on moving the issue along sooner rather than later.

"We are grateful that Sen. Murkowski has been able to work with her colleagues to not let this issue go completely off the list of priorities for funding, but when congressional people in Washington look at all the infrastructure problems in the Lower 48, they seem to put Alaska to the side," said Hunt.

And, good news has also come in the form of successfully changing the status of the uplands that was classified as "servitude" because under that category, the city owns the land but the Army Corps of Engineers could take the land back at any time, making it difficult for banks to lend for development.

"We continue to work with our lobbyist, who is doing a great job making sure nobody forgets about our tunnel problem," said Hunt. "I'm not sure how people at the Corps and people in D.C. are going to feel if a disaster happens here before the federal government appropriates funds to study alternatives and then take action."


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