Battling the Elements
Buying Time for Kivalina
A beach-stabilization project in remote northwest Alaska saves a small town from rising seawaters
By Angelle Bergeron
Brice Inc. in September completed a $4-million job for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a rock revetment on Kivalina, a barrier island off the coast of northwestern Alaska that is gradually washing away. “They’ve been experiencing erosion for many years, but it has accelerated so much that they were in danger of losing their airport and schools,” says Sam Robert Brice, the firm’s president. “It was eroding away into a landing strip.”
Fairbanks-based Brice Inc., a heavy civil contractor specializing in remote-site projects such as airports, harbors and roads, faced bad weather and rough seas, shallow-water access and constantly shifting sands but still delivered the 400 ft of rock revetment in time to protect the village through another stormy fall and winter season.
Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo community of 391 people, is located on the tip of an 8-mi-long barrier island that lies between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River. It is about 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue. “I hate to use the term ‘global warming’ because it’s still a theory, but we’ve been having some climate change that has created some issues in western Alaska,” says John MacKinnon, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska.
Typically, in the fall in the coastal western Arctic area, ice forms and attaches to the shoreline, protecting it from the battering waves during fall storms. “In the last few years, ice is not forming, so when fall storms hit, there is no protection for the shoreline,” MacKinnon says. “There are a number of villages on sandy beaches and fragile coastal shorelines that are at risk.”
No Funding Freeze
Kivalina is one of several Alaskan communities in which the Corps is performing work authorized under the 2005 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, says Andrea Elconin, the Corps’ project manager. “The first appropriation we received was $2.4 million under a line item called Alaska Coastal Erosion in the 2006 Energy and Water Appropriation bill,” she says.
To date, the Corps has received a total of $55 million for the Alaska Coastal Erosion program. It has spent about $12 million and obligated another $20 million to contracts in Shishmaref and Kivalina, Elconin says.
Brice Inc. so far has been awarded $12.5 million in contracts, Brice says. The contractor will begin work on the additional contracts in July, when the ice melts.
The Corps has a long history of building rock breakwaters in Alaska, but revetments for shore protection are a little newer and more challenging for contractors, Elconin says. “We’ve received enough bids to feel good about the competition, but there aren’t a lot of contractors in the area that are interested in doing this work,” she says. “Because of the remote location and rough seas, a contractor has to come in well prepared.” For example, if a part breaks on a piece of equipment, and it’s too big to fly in on a small plane, it may take weeks to get a replacement.
Brice agrees that logistics are tough. His Fairbanks office is about 350 miles from Kivalina, and the granite for the project came by barge from Cape Nome Quarry, which is more than 200 miles away.
“The nature of getting into Kivalina is real tough because of the shallow access and exposure as a barrier island,” Brice says. “Any time you get a big surge, you can’t land on the beach.”
Window for Work
The window for construction is when there is no ice, from mid-July to the end of September, Brice says. During that period, the firm had at least three bad-weather events that lasted several days and halted work.
The contractor and the Corps based designs on a shoreline that previously had been bolstered with Hesco baskets, which are temporary levees. When Brice arrived on-site, the cloth-lined, wire-mesh, sand-filled baskets had been washed away.
“After we realized the beach wasn’t there, the challenge was to get the new design, demolish the Hescos and construct the revetment in a shallow place where the sand was constantly changing,” Brice says. “We never had a design that stayed the same from one week to the next because the beach was changing all the time.”
The final design called for a three-layer rock revetment placed on top of overlapping layers of 17-ft-wide erosion-control fabric laid from the top of the bank into the water for the extent of the revetment footprint. “For the 400 ft, we probably had 25 laps that had to be sewn together,” Brice says. “The fabric had to be placed by men in skiffs and waders who fought the never-ending current.”
The project required roughly 10,000 to 11,000 tons of white granite in three layers of varying grades. The 1.5-ft-deep base level is constructed of well-graded, pit-run gravel that is not processed, screened or crushed, Brice says. The middle layer is “B” rock, which is 20- to 200-lb armor rock. The top layer is made of “A” rock, which means the rocks are roughly 2.5 ft in diameter and weigh an average of 2,500 lb each.
The travel distance and navigating the 6-ft to 7-ft-deep shallows near the beach dictated that Brice Inc. carry smaller barge loads, but the contractor could not have accessed the project at all were it not for the company’s new $7-million articulated tug-and-barge combination. “The boat made the job,” Brice says. Instead of a traditional configuration in which a tug pushes on the hip of a barge, the articulated setup allows the tug to pin itself into a notch at the back of the barge and push it. “It’s faster and more fuel efficient because you have just one vessel breaking water,” Brice says. Because the tug is pushing in the rear, the barge works like a landing craft.
The concept is relatively new to the industry. Brice created a scaled-down design to suit his particular needs and had the barge made by Halimar Shipyard LLC in Morgan City, La. The tug was fabricated at Chiasson Shipbuilding in Larose, La.
“It came out of dry dock in June 2007, and we worked it last year on an airport job at Guantanamo Bay, supporting another Alaskan contractor,” Brice says. “It came to Alaska in 2008 through the Panama Canal,” he adds.
As the incoming president of AGC’s Alaska chapter, Brice plans to focus on something he has emphasized throughout his career: workforce training with a rural Alaska emphasis. “One of the things that you have to do in rural Alaska is use local hire,” Brice says. “We always establish a basic core crew and hire as many locals as we can.”
Elconin says Brice does a good job of community relations. “He’s so familiar with working with these small communities, and I’ve been really impressed with how he interacted with them,” she says.
This inclusive approach is particularly important on Kivalina, which is a hotbed of political conflict—litigation against the oil industry, which the natives blame for global warming, and the need for relocation, which the Corps has studied for 10 years.
“The purpose of the revetment is to provide interim protection for the community as it plans relocation,” Elconin says. “It has a design life of 15 years.”