Haines Borough officials say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reneged on statements that it would help fund test drilling of the sea floor for the Small Boat Harbor expansion project.

The hitch could cost the municipality $675,000 and force the local government to use money from its own coffers or from the State of Alaska for work which must be done in advance of breakwater improvements at the harbor’s entrance. Entrance improvements are needed to reduce wave-action damage to boats and floats.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during an interview in Haines last week that she would meet this week with Corps officials representing the Alaska region to address the matter.

“I was of the belief that we were finally moving on this project. To come back now, 18 months later and find out we’re further behind now than we were then… This is something we have to get resolved,” Murkowski said.

Haines Borough Manager Mark Earnest said Corps’ project manager Don Fore said at a meeting last year that geotechnical analysis of the sea floor in the existing basin would qualify for federal participation and that the federal share of the work would be 75 percent of costs.

Earnest said he understood that to mean that further authorization wasn’t required for the borough to receive federal funds. There also was an advance funding agreement stipulating state funds would pay for initial work and the Corps would reimburse that amount, he said.

“In the last two weeks, that was off the table that they were interested in moving ahead with that and the south (basin work),” Earnest said this week.

Corps spokesman Pat Richardson this week said the agency is seeking federal funds for sea floor drilling on its proposed northward expansion of the harbor. “We can accept local funds so that would be added to a federal contract for (drilling) work on the north… On the other hand, we would need to generate a new agreement in order to provide federal funds to a city-led contract to obtain geotech work for both sides,” Richardson wrote in an e-mail.

Due to a project price tag that appeared to be $30 million or more, harbor advocates and borough officials more than a year ago stopped pushing for a northward harbor expansion and started studying improvements to the existing basin that could increase the facility’s usefulness and make room for more boats.

Planned drilling of a dozen core samples into the sea floor scheduled for this summer is aimed at determining whether a 150-foot, rubble mound breakwater – similar to the existing one – can be added as a southern “nose” to the breakwater in the existing basin.

Soft soils on the sea floor could add considerable cost to “nose” option, if boulders sink into the mud there.

Also, without Corps participation in the project, borough work on the existing breakwater faces some hurdles. Corps spokesman Richardson said the Corps would have to conduct an analysis of the impacts the addition might create to the existing structure. “There is a process that we must follow in order for that to happen. Again, we do not presently have funding to conduct that analysis and it may require the borough to pay for the effort,” Richardson said.

Earnest said it’s important the test drilling be done this summer, regardless of the funding source, because results of the drilling will determine which design is chosen for protecting the harbor entrance. A rubble mound absorbs wave action and a “nose” design is the borough’s preferred alternative, he said. Its price tag has been estimated up to $4 million.

If the Corps won’t participate in funding the test drilling or construction, the borough may look at building a hook-shaped jetty from shore, extending northward from the southernmost parking lot at the harbor. That would allow most work to be done by local contractors and may not require use of barge, significantly reducing costs, said harbormaster Phil Benner.

Another option is building a steel “sea wall” at the harbor mouth, but that design reflects waves rather than absorbs them – raising safety concerns. It also has a limited lifespan, Benner said.

Benner said harbor entrance protection is the top priority, and must come before work to expand floats and make other improvements in the existing basin. “We have to protect our assets first. It doesn’t make any sense to do work that isn’t going to be protected.”

Former borough pubLic facilities director Brad Maynard, who headed up the project before leaving the borough in June 2011, said the Corps indicated that it would not fund construction in the existing basin, but that it might be willing to pay for drilling some of the test holes off the breakwater near the harbor entrance.