Knowledge, technology help Terra win government work

PHOTO/ Ron Veltkamp/For the Journal
We who live in Anchorage know that Cook Inlet has a reputation for waters that are far from placid.

With tidal changes among the highest in the world, bore tides, glacial silt and winds, Cook Inlet is considered to be quite treacherous, and not many owners of small craft will venture onto it.

We also understand how important Cook Inlet is to our lives.

Most of our consumer goods, our cars and trucks and the fuel they consume, as well as the jet fuel to operate the jetliners we travel on, and the jet fighters that protect us, come up Cook Inlet.

With shipping so important, safety is an obvious issue.

While what’s happening on top of the water column in terms of wind, waves and tides is important, equally important is the invisible bottom of the water column, the sea floor.

With all the rockin’ and rollin’ going on at the surface, can you imagine the difficulty of trying to survey the bottom of Cook Inlet?

Federal agencies, which have the responsibility for these surveys, have increasingly turned to an Alaska company, Terra Surveys LLC, for their expertise in hydrography, the underwater mapping of the ocean floor.

This relatively young company has proven that it has the know-how, the technological expertise and equipment to perform hydrographic surveys in the toughest conditions in North America.

Formed in 1994, the company is owned by Larry Whiting, Tom Newman, Bob Kohut and Gerald Douthit.

While the company is fairly young, the owners each have 15-25 years of experience in hydrographic surveying.

Certified by the Small Business Administration as a small disadvantaged business, this Native-American owned firm is also a participant in the SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program.

Government agencies do not let go of programs easily.

The move towards privatization of some programs and functions is somewhat threatening.

Nevertheless, that is the direction in which some agencies and functions are headed.

That was true of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration function of underwater mapping.

Not long after Terra Surveys was founded, NOAA put out a pre-solicitation announcement to determine the capabilities of firms nationwide to provide sea floor mapping.

Following numerous NOAA-sponsored conferences and training to determine NOAA’s specific needs, Terra Surveys submitted its qualifications to NOAA.

With the Alaska congressional delegation supporting this privatization effort, Terra Surveys was successful in demonstrating its capabilities, and NOAA determined that Terra was the most qualified Alaska firm.

Since that time, Terra has completed four years of contracting for NOAA.

In order to provide the latest technology, Terra, and its lender, National Bank of Alaska (now Wells Fargo Bank Alaska), turned to the SBA’s loan guaranty program to finance a vessel to perform contracts for NOAA and other agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Equipped with global positioning systems, vertical and multibeam depth finding systems, water level gauges, vessel motion correctors and side scan sonar systems, this vessel and others owned by the company have provided the capability of performing any sea floor mapping project in Alaska.

Terra Surveys was awarded the "Survey Project of the Year" for its project on the Knik Arm Shoal in 1996, was nominated for SBA’s "Regional Small Business Prime Contractor of the Year" for SBA’s Northwest Region, and received the SBA’s "Administrator’s Award for Excellence" certificate in 2001.

Terra’s managing partner, Larry Whiting, is pleased with the firm’s progress and performance on the NOAA work.

"We were in the right place to take advantage of the movement towards privatization," Whiting said.

"With our experience, technology and equipment, Terra was able to perform difficult work with excellent results.

"With our multibeam capability, we were able to provide results that NOAA previously could not obtain."

Whiting also cites the assistance provided by SBA.

"SBA really helped with financing our vessel," Whiting said, "and the Small Disadvantaged Business and 8(a) certifications have given us an edge to prove that a minority-owned company could perform difficult work and meet or exceed contract requirements."

This difficult work involves capturing accurate data about the sea floor, taking into consideration the height and movement of tides, the pitch and roll of the vessel from wave action, wind velocity, speed of the vessel, and other factors.

The data is then loaded into Terra’s computer system at its offices near Palmer.

Further processing of the data ultimately results in a color-shaded map of the sea floor.

This technology has enabled the company to map the floor of upper Cook Inlet, map the location of a sunken ship in Tongass Narrows near Ketchikan, and find a large, previously hidden rock in the Wrangell Narrows near Petersburg.

Ron Veltkamp is the business development officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Alaska. He can be reached at 907-271-4838.

11/18/2001 - 8:00pm