Pipes and chains sticking out of the ground are hardly a flashy engineering feat, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District is frugally designing and quickly delivering mooring points to some of Alaska's most rural communities located on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Since its inception, the project offers strong potential for major transportation, environmental and economic benefits.
Located off the grid from Alaska's highways, remote towns depend on these spirited rivers as a lifeline for supplies. The construction of mooring points improves village barging areas by providing a safe area for vessels to anchor. It helps the populations that rely on barge service to have access to a larger market of fuel, materials, vehicles, food and other freight.
The results directly affect the Alaskan and national economy, Joel Neimeyer said, federal co-chair at the Denali Commission. He explained that the work was recommended by the Commission's Transportation Advisory Committee, the statutorily-identified body that advises the agency's transportation program.
"Our priority should be barge landing projects over other waterfront and surface road activities," Neimeyer said. "The true economy of scale comes when entire river systems and coastal communities have mooring points installed."
A barge company's fuel expenses are related to the cost of freight for rural Alaskans. In the form of docks, pipes and chains emerging from the terrain, moorings allow operators to tie off their vessels and shut off engines while unloading their cargo. This simple practice is expected to yield significant savings for shippers and those receiving goods.
The Denali Commission Act of 1998 established the agency to deliver services of the federal government in the most cost-effective manner by reducing administrative and overhead costs. Its mission consists of providing economic development services and other infrastructure needs in rural Alaska.
In 2007, the Commission and Corps partnered to conduct an evaluation called the "Barge Landing Development System Design Assessment." Operators, freight and fuel companies were interviewed. When finished in 2009, findings determined the lack of mooring points were a deficiency in the rural communities. In order to off-load, tactics included beaching ships or tying off to heavy construction equipment sitting along the shore.
Sharm Setterquist, a port captain for the Crowley Maritime Corporation that oversees eight tug vessels delivering fuel and freight to western Alaska, cited eroding stream banks as a problem before moors were available. Freighters accelerated this deterioration by pushing water onto the shoreline while trying to stabilize in the current during unloading, he said.
"We'd have to turn parallel to the beach," Setterquist said. "Now, we're not moving around as much."
The assessment identifies priority communities by grading each site on a criterion of what infrastructure is required, frequency of barge traffic and the estimated timeframe for project completion. To date, the Corps has completed nine of 26 mooring point installations in places such as Chevak, Kwigillingak and Tuntutuliak. The average cost per mooring point is $21,097. Pending any funding constraints, the remaining projects are scheduled to wrap up in 2014 and 2015.
"We go in, we identify what the problem is, we turn it around to a design and then into construction," said Melanie Peterson, project manager in the Corps' Environmental and Special Projects Branch.
Chevak was selected as the pilot project. The community is located on the north bank of the Niglikfak River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Funding to plan, design and construct three mooring points cost $270,000. The Corps designed and awarded the work within two months, and contractors were able to finish ahead of schedule in 2009. In all, the task took less than a year and was executed between the months of May and October.
Since each location has different needs, as described in the initial assessment, the cost and time for each site varies. The simplicity of customer requirements and design needs allows the Corps' International and Interagency Services Program to deliver quick results.
"Working with the Commission through our program allows us to execute a streamlined process," Peterson said. "We establish priorities with the customer and are able to move the project along."
Under the program, the Corps' mission is to provide technical assistance to other federal agencies, state and local governments, as well as private U.S. firms, international organizations and foreign governments. A written agreement between organizations is required to transfer a technical assignment to the Corps.
The Corps responds quickly to community requests and plan alternatives, Neimeyer said. He explained that prototypical designs have helped to create similar construction costs for multiple sites, and that the Commission's partner works actively to ensure budgets, schedules and scopes are maintained, or in some cases reduced.
"The Denali Commission has been a great partner in advocating for the Corps' streamlined program," Peterson said. "We're cost reimbursable."
She also praised the Corps' relationship with the Commission for allowing "open dialogue" to discuss any concerns or risks with proposals and the use of funds.
While this partnership is bringing timely, affordable and practical results around Alaska, barge operators now are able to secure their vessels when delivering fuel and freight.
Setterquist said the moorings have made it significantly safer for skiff traffic around his operations. He also noted that snowmobilers benefit from the projects since the Corps was able to install some points below the surface to avoid becoming potential crash hazards.
Since the Commission is paying for the projects, the Corps only needs authorization to place the points on community-owned property that is accessible to the public. Working with the locals to determine needs and location of the moorings has been a successful process, Peterson said.
These chains and pipes may not appeal to the metropolitan lover of architecture, but there is no doubt these low cost, high reward projects have Alaska communities wanting more.