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Bethel harbor gets part of a much-needed upgrade

Megan Edge
Skiffs line the bank of the small boat harbor in the Kuskokwim River village of Bethel, AK on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Roughly $6.5 million has already been spent on improvements to Bethel's small-boat harbor, but that still won't be enough money to complete a project to help save the harbor, which caters to fishermen and travelers who use the Kuskokwim River as a highway during summer.

Currently, crews from KNIK Construction are repairing and installing banks at the basin of the boat harbor using a material known as geocell, which port director Peter Williams describes as a webbed material with pockets that are eventually filled with gravel. One of the last steps in a three-part project, the geocell phase alone cost $3.7 million. 

Slipping embankments have been causing the harbor to become increasingly shallow.

"It got so shallow in there that we couldn't get in and out of the entrance channel," Williams said in a phone interview. "Lots of people were breaking their motors hitting bottom."

In September, when the current phase is completed, there will still be 500 feet of embankment in need of repair, but Williams says the port won't be able to fix it. They're running out of money for the project, and he is unsure where they will find the rest of the funding. 

"We will get out there and beg," Williams said, laughing. "But realistically, we will just have to maintain it best we can until we can figure out a way to come up with the funds."

That financial shortfall was expected, said Alaska House Rep. Robert Herron.

"We will help as best we can. But they knew in advance that that chunk of change wouldn't be enough but they were happy to get the money anyway, " Herron said. He added that port officials knew they would need additional state and federal funding to complete the project.

The current phase is being funded by a state grant given to the Western Alaska hub in 2012. The last two phases, which included new boat launches last fall and harbor dredging in February, cost about $2.8 million dollars and was funded by the state, the Port of Bethel, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Denali Commission, said Williams.

But even though that $6.5 million isn't enough to fully repair the harbor, Williams said, it's better than nothing. He reflected on the harbor's condition four years ago, when it was practically falling to pieces. Piers were falling into the water, he said.

Williams added that the Bethel boat harbor is crucial to the way of life for most Western Alaska residents -- not just Bethel.

"It's critical," he said. "The state patrol (Alaska State Troopers) uses it, and everybody who needs to get out on the (Kuskokwim) river does too." The list went on.

He said residents of the region visit because they have family in the community or to use the grocery store and medical clinic. He added that some travel from their village to Bethel by boat and catch a plane to Anchorage, leaving their boat at the harbor.

With the city's position as a gateway to the Kuskokwim, he said, subsistence fishermen heading to the "hundreds and hundreds of fish camps" along the river are constantly stopping in Bethel for supplies. Williams said on the weekends it's "nearly impossible to find a place to park." He claims 600 people have boating permits out of the harbor, and about 75 percent of those are regulars. Herron said he regularly uses the harbor to fish and get to his cabin.

When the small-boat harbor was completed in 1980, Herron was a member of the Port Commission. He said that before 1980, the area where the harbor sits now was nothing but swamp. Everyone had small skiffs at the time and people were excited about the harbor opening -- it was a safe place to go when conditions on the Kuskoswim River were too rough for safe boating, Herron said.

According to Williams, crews initially stabilized the slumping slopes of the harbor, but after heavy rainfall everything turned to mud. People were encouraged to stay away from the unstable embankments. Since then, most upgrades have been in-house repairs that don't provide long-term solutions to the problem.

Herron said that although the project belonged to the Corps initially, in most circumstances it's actually up to the entity receiving the upgrade to maintain the project once it is complete.

"Corps projects take many years," said Herron. "We are talking about 35 years ago. We did what we could with what we had. But there were competing costs." 

He said the harbor was dredged just "a couple of times" over the years.

And maintaining a harbor in such a harsh climate has also been a struggle. When everything freezes over in October, the harbor's infrastructure is completely taken down and isn't rebuilt until after breakup.

"We have another concern in spring because we're only about 6 feet above sea level, and normal breakup washes a thin layer of water over the boat harbor," Williams said. "I have seen stuff float away. I've seen dumpsters floating away."

But until October, despite construction, it's "business as usual" at the harbor. Williams said construction shouldn't affect traffic on the water but suggested that locals motor slowly through the area.

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