With support from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, Homer’s peatlands are becoming a national model for combining stormwater solutions with land conservation.

Like many coastal communities, the City of Homer is experiencing the mixed blessings of growth. While development can have positive economic impacts, it also taxes municipal resources and affects quality of life. Case in point: stormwater. Poorly managed drainage damages roads, other public infrastructure, and private property through increased flooding, erosion, and slope instability.
Fortunately, Homer has a solution: the “Kachemak Sponge.” 

This innovative project will demonstrate how the city’s expansive peatlands can become nature-based solutions for soaking up stormwater and protecting the fish and wildlife at the center of Alaska’s economy and culture. With a transformational grant from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the City of Homer is working with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to acquire 55 acres of peatlands and design a system to channel its stormwater there for storage and filtration.

“Peat is sponge-like, making it ideal for absorbing floodwaters, and its composition allows it to naturally filter runoff,” says Jan Keiser, retired Public Works Director at the City of Homer who helped launch this project. “Stormwater that would otherwise flow over and erode roads and shoreline will be redirected to the peatlands, where it can recharge water levels in the peat and surrounding wetlands and protect water quality.

The Kachemak Sponge project builds on 20 years of science from the Reserve and partners, exploring the role peatlands play in supporting the health of salmon and their capacity to store carbon.

“Intact wetlands composed of sphagnum and other mosses not only absorb a lot of water, they also provide insulation for the deep layers of peat that have accumulated over thousands of years,” says Katherine Schake, Reserve Manager. “This helps keep carbon in the landscape and prevents the decomposition that releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Peatlands are also one of the Kenai Peninsula’s greatest assets for groundwater recharge, according to Schake. This is critical to ensure freshwater sources for local drinking water supplies and cooler river waters to support salmon populations. Twenty years of groundwater research by the Reserve and partners at the University of South Florida and Cook Inletkeeper have demonstrated that groundwater discharge into streams helps maintain the streams at cold temperatures salmon need to persist and thrive.

Once the Kachemak Sponge project is complete, it will be the largest-scale green infrastructure project in Alaska, setting the stage for implementation all over the state. It enjoys the support of a wide range of stakeholders including Northern Enterprises Boatyard, Kachemak Moose Habitat Inc., Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, among others.

The Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is a partnership between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska Anchorage, where it is housed within the Alaska Center for Conservation Science.

A person standing in peatlands.