Gov. wants to dredge channels

Proposal would open waterways in Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell

Posted: Monday, February 13, 2006

Like other shallow waterways linked to Southeast Alaska's estuaries, the upper reaches of Juneau's Gastineau Channel are more for the birds than the boats.

Gov. Murkowski wants to change that.

The governor - to the surprise of some residents, and to an extent, his own regional transportation officials - has asked the Legislature to approve spending $7 million to dredge out navigable channels in upper Gastineau Channel and in Dry Strait, between Petersburg and Wrangell.

This wouldn't be the first dredging project in Gastineau Channel, but it would be a first in Dry Strait, which is influenced by the Stikine River.

The shallow areas of Gas-tineau Channel were dredged in 1959 and 1960 as part of a multiyear federal project. The channel was dredged again to build Juneau's main thoroughfare, Egan Drive, residents say.

"I can't imagine why they would do it again," says former Juneau Rep. Mike Miller. "It failed both times."

As envisioned, the project could forge a pathway for commercial fishing vessels. The Gastineau bottleneck now sees infrequent small boat traffic through a narrow course of markers that can challenge the inexperienced.

The governor's staff did not provide anyone to talk about the budget proposal this week. The person most familiar with the project - deputy chief of staff Mike Nizich - was out sick, according to Murkowski's staff.

The state's regional transportation chief, Malcolm Menzies, said he is asking for more information about the governor's budget request.

Some time ago, Menzies said he was asked for a cost estimate to dredge Gastineau Channel. He looked at a 6-year-old federal study - which ultimately recommended against dredging - and updated the cost estimates.

"Next thing I knew, there was this item in the budget," he said Friday.

The governor's $7 million request would not pay the total costs of dredging both water bodies. It would likely pay the cost of dredging upper Gastineau Channel and possibly the cost of studying dredging in Dry Strait, Menzies explained.

Though the state has compiled plenty of information about Gastineau Channel over the years, it would need to gather a lot of technical data about Dry Strait before it could dredge there, he said.

It could cost $1 million annually to maintain the passage in Gastineau Channel, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' calculations, Menzies said.

"We'd have to do something in our work to reduce this cost," he said.

Menzies said the dredging would likely happen between Salmon Creek and Fish Creek. The project could be done within the existing channel, without disturbing nearby grass flats, he said.

Because the governor has proposed using general funds for the dredging, the state would not need to conduct an extensive environmental impact statement. The state could conduct a less-detailed environmental assessment, Menzies said.

Southeast Alaska and Juneau residents expressed mixed feelings about the idea of dredging Gastineau Channel.

Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof, a past president of the Mendenhall Wetlands Citizens Advisory Board, called the plan moronic, given the problems with dredging the channel in the past.

"The best thing the governor could possibly do is reprogram this request - give the city of Petersburg $4 million to rebuild their harbor. Give $3 million to enhance the Juneau harbors or commercial fisheries projects in Auke Bay," Geldhof suggested.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said she doesn't think dredging Dry Strait would work at all. "It's like throwing your money down the drain. Nature takes its course in that (Stikine) River," she said.

Juneau ecologist Richard Carstensen said he worries the project in Gastineau Channel would have a harmful effect on the invertebrates, birds and other critters that occupy that part of the channel and the adjacent Mendenhall Wetlands.

Charles Schneider of Juneau said he helped run the dredging project for the initial Corps of Engineers project in Gastineau Channel.

"It was a really interesting job and it could be done again ... just like the big harbors down south," the retired contractor said Friday.

Schneider remembers with satisfaction how Juneau sailboats, seiners, trollers, barges and other boats sailed through the channel for the next few years.

Creating a navigable upper channel saved Juneau vessels three to four hours of run-time, he said. They didn't need to travel around Douglas Island to get from one side of Juneau to the other anymore, Schneider said.

Nature had something different in mind than the boat access, however.

Schneider recalls how the channel - influenced by the Mendenhall River, numerous streams and the tides - filled in gradually with silt until the boat traffic came to a standstill.

The submerged land itself rises a little less than a half-inch per year due to glacial retreat, in a geological process called isostatic rebound.

The Corps of Engineers "sure didn't do any more dredging," Schneider said.

At the time, the Corps of Engineers realized that the project was having problems pretty quickly, said Steve Boardman, a Corps division branch chief for civil projects in Anchorage.

"It started to fill in as we dredged," Boardman said Thursday.

The Corps of Engineers evaluated re-dredging the channel about six years ago, he said.

"Based on the technology ... we couldn't find a way to keep (the passage) open, economically. So we haven't done any maintenance dredging," Boardman said.

More recently, the Murkowski administration recently asked the Corps to consider "relooking" at dredging in Gastineau Channel, Boardman added.

The Corps told Murkowski officials that it would be take a few years before they could even ask for federal funds for the dredging projects, Boardman said.

"We are not allowed to ask for new work until we clean out the projects we already have," he explained.

Juneau seine fisherman Scott McAllister had not heard of this proposal to dredge Gastineau Channel but said it would be a boon for commercial fishermen and other boaters.

"It would make life as a fisherman in Juneau a whole lot easier," McAllister said. "I'm all for it," he said.

Miller, the former legislator, disagreed. He said it seems crazy to spend a lot of money when dredging doesn't seem to work.

The idea of dredging every year - or every few years - also seemed expensive to Miller.

"It's what they do on the Panama Canal. They never stop dredging, but they make huge profits. I can't imagine anyone paying a toll, like they pay on the Panama Canal, though," Miller said.

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