By Jenny Neyman
Water, it is said, is the most powerful force on earth.
It is certainly proving its potency among residents in a flooded section along Kalifornsky Beach Road south of Bridge Access Road and east of the bluffs along Cook Inlet. The saturated ground has been swamping roads, pooling in yards and parking lots, flooding crawl spaces and threatening well and septic systems, with no sign of drying up.
“It seems to be getting worse in the last week to 10 days,” said Paul Ostrander, chief of staff for Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, on Monday. “The borough is still trying to determine exactly what the cause of this is.”
A report from the U.S. Geologic Survey suggests elevated fall precipitation, exacerbated by recent winter conditions that left the ground primed to flood, as a significant contributing factor, he said.
“It shows that the cumulative precipitation in 2012 and 2013 — specifically, primarily, in the fall — has been far more than historically we’ve seen, for two years in a row,” Ostrander said.
The water level in the Kenai River also is noted to be higher than usual.
“During August and September of 2013 the Kenai River at Soldotna has exceeded median daily discharge values during the 48-year period of record. In particular a peak flow observed on Sept. 13 was nearly two times the median daily value,” Ostrander cited from the report.
Those high flow levels are thought to impact the elevation of the water table in the associated aquifer, Ostrander said. Add to that winter conditions contributing to water retention in the area. For instance, the report notes, the amount of frost in the ground during spring breakup can have a lingering effect on groundwater.
The winter of 2011-12, for instance, was a heavy snow year, but breakup in 2012 saw a relatively fast snowmelt.
“We had a ton of snow and everyone was talking about how we were going to have snow until July and — boom — it just went away,” Ostrander said.
But the water from the snow didn’t just disappear. The USGS report speculates that the ground was mostly thawed by the time temperatures warmed enough for the snow to melt, so the melt water sunk into the ground, and apparently stayed there.
“It all absorbed, so that provided a substantial increase to the groundwater. And then, combined with the heavy rainfall in September 2012, that also recharged it. So we went into the winter with high groundwater levels,” Ostrander said.
With already-elevated groundwater levels, the additional precipitation this fall is pooling on top, resulting in puddles, pools and ponds on the surface.
It’s not just in this K-Beach area being affected, along Murwood Avenue, east to Eider Drive and Eastway Road, and south, including Karluk, Buoy, Tiller and Trawling avenues. Ostrander said that the borough has heard of unusually wet conditions elsewhere, as well.
“This is certainly not isolated. You hear people talk about, ‘Well, in my neighborhood there’s a gravel pit that never has water in it and it’s got water in it this year,” Ostrander said. “… There’s water standing in areas that hasn’t been there for years. So this is not an isolated issue.”
But the water is particularly impacting residents in the K-Beach area. It’s a low-lying area, Ostrander said, with a large swath, from Murwood and West Poppy Lane in the east to Buoy and Karluk in the west, to Kasilof in the south, classified as a large, interconnected wetlands.
“It’s an enormous wetlands complex, and that entire wetlands complex is full of water, more so than people have seen for many years. So that’s saturated, so anytime we have rain or anything else we see the impacts of that because it doesn’t have the ability to absorb any additional water,” Ostrander said.
Several residents say they’ve never seen conditions like this before, with flooding conditions noticed last September and becoming worse this September.
Sam Van Nostrand bought a parcel in Kalifonsky Meadows Airpark Subdivision off Buoy Avenue and has been building a house there.
“It’s really strange because five years ago when I bought it I don’t know how many 3-inch rains and better I saw out here, and the whole property didn’t stand any water. Within an hour or so after it rained, everything was out of sight,” he said late last week. “About a year ago the water out here just came up abruptly and it’s having a hard time receding. We can’t figure out what’s going on.”
This year Van Nostrand has been dealing with flooding in the crawl space of his new house. He said that about a month ago he finally gave up, jacked the house up 3 feet, built a pony wall under the structure to elevate it above the groundwater and filled in the crawl space. That took about $20,000 and 160 yards of material, mostly shoveled in by hand, he said.
But the cost and extra construction hassle aren’t what really have him worried, he said, it’s that flooding can wreak havoc on well and septic systems — which can pose a significant health risk.
“That’s the biggest concern, really, is safety. It’s one thing to think about how you’re damaged on property values, but it’s a whole different animal when you start talking about somebody’s well-being and health. It just takes one person to get sick from something in their drinking water. All the expenses aside, the health and well-being of the residents in the area is first and foremost,” he said.
A nearby resident on Buoy, Colleen Bass, said she had her septic system pumped recently because of the flooding, and she was already facing flooding issues last September. If the high water continues, she’s afraid she and her husband will have to walk away from their house.
Saturated ground and septic systems are not a healthy mix. If the groundwater mixes with a septic system leach field, bacteria and other contaminants can be carried anywhere that groundwater goes, including into the crawl space of a house.
Dave Yragui, the developer of the airpark subdivision, also owns and has operated Redoubt Plumbing and Heating until retiring a few years ago.
He advises Bass and all his neighbors — as he also owns a ranch and home in the affected area — to be cautious when dealing with water inside the home. As distasteful as the possibility that crawl space flooding could involve graywater from leach fields, pumping it out too quickly could lead to even bigger problems, he said. Water seeks its own level, Yragui explained, and if it’s pumped out of a basement or crawl space too fast in flooding, more water from the ground outside could be sucked in to fill that void, and that flow could potentially erode the sand and gravel around the footings of the house.
“That’s the problem with using like a 2-inch or 3-inch trash pump. People think, ‘The bigger the pump, the better.’ It’s not. It’s better to use a very, very small pump and (run it) very, very regulated. You want to pump the water out very slowly so that it doesn’t create flow underneath your foundation,” he said. And use a dehumidifier in the home to keep the moisture — potentially carrying mold spores and other contaminants — from being drawn through the upper levels of the house, he said.
Yragui has already noticed a neighbor with graywater in a ditch along the road outside his home, pumped out from the home’s crawl space, he said.
Yragui also is concerned about contamination of well water, he said, particularly now that temperatures are dipping below freezing at night. When the ground is saturated with water in freezing conditions, ice can form. If the ground around a well freezes, the ice can grab the well casing and move it, potentially shearing off the pitless adapter valve, connecting the well shaft to the pipe leading into the house and allowing the water in the ground to trickle down the shaft into the well.
“This is real. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve fixed it in the wintertime,” he said.
A representative from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation office on K-Beach said Tuesday that DEC hasn’t received reports of any well water in the flooded area testing positive for contaminants, but cautions residents to be careful as the flooding persists. For information on water safety, visit http://ready.alaska.gov/Updates/Documents/Information/Flood%20Packet.pdf. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management has information available on its website, as well, at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency-mgmt.
The borough is inviting several agencies to a meeting with the public at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Donald E. Gilman River Center on Funny River Road, including the departments of Environmental Conservation, Transportation and Public Facilities, Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
In the meantime, residents with concerns about their wells, septic systems or flooding in basements or crawl spaces are encouraged to consult with experts in those fields.
The borough has had workers out in affected areas to address spots of concern along its roads and is considering more substantial, longer-term efforts.
“We’re trying to determine if there are things we can do on our infrastructure to help convey that water better,” Ostrander said. “In the past, because of the fact that this water table has been much lower, the infrastructure was fine to convey it. But since it’s gone up so substantially it now appears that some things do need to be done.”
But it isn’t an easy, cheap or quick fix. First, funding would need to be identified, Ostrander said. In order for governmental public assistance funding to become a possibility, the borough would have to declare the situation a disaster and demonstrate that it is beyond the borough’s capability to address. So far that hasn’t happened.
So that means money would likely come from the borough’s roads department, from the money set aside for capital improvement projects, Ostrander said.
“(But) there is a list of capital improvement projects that has been determined and established by the Road Service Area, and these roads are not necessarily on there, so how that funding would work through that process I can’t say for certain,” he said.
The plan is to bring in an engineer/hydrologist to examine the area.
“We need a professional to come in here and determine what should and can be done to help with this issue. Based on that recommendation then it’s likely that there will be some work done, and this will be next year, 2014,” he said.
He advises a deliberate approach that looks at the entire area, rather than installing one culvert here and digging one ditch there.
“What we don’t want to do is start speculating about what we should do or what we shouldn’t do and then do things that maybe have an adverse effect that we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “This is an enormous amount of water that we’re talking about and you can take a scattergun approach and start digging ditches and hope for the best, but it is not the responsible direction to take. We need to be deliberate, we need to bring in experts that can help us determine what needs to be done, we need to follow that process and then we need to do it if it makes sense. Anytime you’re dealing with a flooded area, be it along a waterway or a situation like this, if you take action, there will be downstream effects.”
But what the borough sees as deliberate, some residents would call deficient. Yragui, in particular, has been impatient to see things done.
“I’m hands-on. I’m not the kind of guy to sit around and watch,” he said. “I get really pissed off when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Their (the borough’s) response has been, ‘We’re looking into it, there’s nothing we can do, we can’t give you any money because there’s no funds available for fuel or anything else.’”
He’s got about 300 acres for his ranch and house in the area, as well as the airpark subdivision development, which he estimates he’s got about $2.5 million invested in. Hay production on his ranch already has been significantly disrupted by the water, and he can’t sell airpark lots that are under water.
“People need to wake up and take notice. Maybe we should quit paying property taxes or have our properties reassessed. There are so many government agencies that are ineffective when disaster hits. We need a massive overhaul in our thinking and faith in government,” he said.
Yragui and his wife started buying and developing property in the area in 2000. He’s excavated throughout the area — clearing land for his ranch, building his house and various other structures, installing wells and septic systems, and extending Buoy Avenue to serve the airpark subdivision. In all that time and digging he said he’s never seen the water table higher than 8 to 10 feet, until last September when the water level rose precipitously. In just three weeks the ground became completely saturated, he said. It abated this spring and summer, but with the rains this September the water jumped right back up to the surface, to the point of having standing water in his hay fields, swamping a pad he’d cleared to build a shop, flooding neighbors’ crawl spaces, eroding roads and wreaking other havoc.
“Water started just pouring from the east and the south this direction. I mean, we had rivers running down Buoy, and there’s no outlets because the borough never provided any drainage on their old road,” he said (meaning the existing portion of the road where it connects to K-Beach, from which the current street was extended).
Bass, who lives on Buoy, said she has spoken with the borough about the flooding and was told the ditches alongside the avenue are meant to keep water off the road more than to move it far away. But, she argues, if excess water can’t drain down into the ground, the only way for it to dissipate is to run along the surface, for instance to culverts leading under K-Beach to drain into Cook Inlet.
“The rain is an act of God, but this stuff — a new road tied into an old road with no way to get the water out — is ridiculous,” she said.
Over the weekend, Yregi said that he counted eight of the 12 culverts under K-Beach were dry, indicating that the water flooding residents nearby wasn’t making its way out through the existing infrastructure. He’s taken it upon himself to change that, applying for permits to dig and clean out ditches, using his own time and equipment to do so. He estimates spending at least $20,000 so far in fuel and equipment use to attempt to enhance drainage and divert water from flooding developments — including cleaning out a culvert underneath the road leading to Spenard Builders Supply at the Bridge Access Road intersection, ditching along Eastway Road and Trawling Avenue, and digging trenches along his property.
He acknowledged, though, that the borough and some residents aren’t thrilled with his efforts — some of his ditches have brought water to areas that weren’t as directly impacted before.
“Everybody was just pretty mad at me,” he said over the weekend. “Everybody claims that it’s my water and I need to do something with it.”
He said his work has improved matters, but that it will take a much larger-scale effort to really remedy the problem. There’s only so much individuals with private resources are going to be able to do and the borough should be the one stepping in to address the situation, he said.
Ostrander said that’d he’d rather see the borough handle the situation, as well. But it won’t be an immediate jump to large-scale action this fall.
“We need to be structured about the way that we go about this because anything we do is going to have impacts. We don’t want the scattergun approach, where we’re just doing something even through it may not be helping at all,” he said.