Borough declares emergency in fall flooding
On Tuesday, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre signed a local disaster emergency declaration due to the unseasonably heavy rain and elevated ground water that have resulted in the flooding of many homes, properties and roads throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough, according to a borough news release. One of the primary areas affected includes numerous subdivisions covering approximately 6,000 acres adjacent to Kalifornsky Beach Road, from Mile 11 to Mile 16.
The declaration has been sent to the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which will be reviewed and forwarded to Gov. Sean Parnell for consideration. If approved, the disaster declaration could open the door to governmental funding to address damages caused by the flooding.
On Monday, the borough issued a warning to use extreme caution when driving in neighborhoods adjacent to Kalifornsky Beach Road, from Mile 11 to 14, where roads, culverts and ditches are covered in standing water. Access should be limited only to four-wheel-drive or ATV vehicles when necessary. Never drive in conditions beyond the limits of visibility, including standing water where the depths are unknown, according the borough. The following roads are listed as having dangerous standing water conditions: Bore Tide, Kalgin, Ebb Tide, Karluk, Buoy, Green Forest, Bore Tide Court, Eider, Patrick, Eastway, Seabiscuit, Skiff Court, Trawling, Dogfish and Westway off of Karluk.
For more information on this road hazard warning, and on dealing with flooding, visit the borough Office of Emergency Management online at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency-mgmt.
By Jenny Neyman
The depressing reality for residents dealing with flooding this fall along sections of Kalifornsky Beach Road is that there’s isn’t much they can do to address the situation but keep on keeping on, holding out the rapidly diminishing hope that the high water table saturating the ground and wreaking havoc on homes and roads recedes before winter’s freezing temperatures set in.
Within the last six weeks that the water table has risen, the situation has gone from bad — with roads, basements and crawl spaces flooding — to worse — with septic systems failing and all the potential health risks posed by swamped leach fields near water wells — to ridiculous over the weekend as a storm dumped inches of rain into the already saturated neighborhoods and surrounding wetlands area.
“It’s laughable. I mean, it’s not funny, but it is funny, because what else can you do but laugh? Seriously, what can you do?” said Tammy Vollom-Matturro, of Karluk Avenue, on Monday, pondering how she was going to get her two daughters home from the bus stop that afternoon through the river that had become the road and the lake that had overtaken her driveway.
“I didn’t even get to the end of my driveway and the water was over my boots. I hadn’t even hit the road yet. So I’m thinking, ‘There is no way that my daughters would get to the front door today if I wasn’t home.’ Usually they walk home from the bus stop,” she said.
Not Monday. Instead, she would drive from her house through the bumper-deep water to her neighbor’s higher driveway across the street, then navigate carefully up the road to the bus stop, taking extra caution to avoid the now-invisible flooded ditches on the sides of the road that a road crew from the Kenai Peninsula Borough had recently put in.
“The problem is they dug these ditches really, really deep on Karluk and now that the water’s flooding the road you have no idea where those ditches are. I guarantee they’ll be pulling someone out because you can’t see where the road ends and that ditch begins,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Once they get home the fun really begins. Or, rather, continues as it has for the last three weeks since their septic system flooded. They’ve been hauling bottled water to drink, fearing contamination of their well water as a result of the flooding. They’ve still got running water for nonpotable uses, but nowhere for the water to drain after it’s used.
“To take showers, we plug tub up, bale it out and dump it in the woods. It is so exhausting to take a shower in this house right now. And I know people would really frown on us throwing our gray water in the woods like that, but what do you do?” Vollom-Matturro said.
“We reserve the toilet for one flush a day. We do dishes in buckets. The bucket brigade is really interesting when your bathroom where you take a shower is on the second floor. I’ve developed some pretty good muscles, man — upper-body strength. And I’m not the only one out here doing that, everybody is.”
Everyone in her section of neighborhood, and other neighborhoods in the area, stretching from about Mile 11 K-Beach Road up to the intersection with Bridge Access Road, is facing similar problems.
“Everybody has water in their crawl space, and not just a little bit, we’re talking feet — feet and feet of water. And the problem is everybody’s pumping this water out but there’s nowhere for it to go so it’s just coming right back in. It’s a continual battle that no one’s winning, and we’re all out here with no septic working, and that’s just a hazardous situation across the board,” she said.
Across the street at Casey Lingenfelter’s house, the once-nightly toilet flush has become a grim version of plumbing roulette— will it drain or won’t it?
“Sometimes it’ll bubble and not go down, and sometimes it will go down,” she said.
The bucket-brigade method of water usage is even more onerous at her house, with more people in it — she, her husband, 6-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter and twin 1.5-year-old babies. They were using cloth diapers to spare the expense of purchasing disposables, but can no longer wash them. Lingenfelter also has been driving her kids to and from the bus stop, which means rousing the babies to load them into the vehicle, as well, for the 6:45 a.m. drive. They’ve also got standing water under the house and a flooded septic system.
“Since everything’s full it basically just pushes other things out and up, so if we keep forcing water into it eventually our sewage and everything will be coming up,” she said. “It’s just a lot. And then, as crappy as things are for us, they’re worse for other people.”
Julie Wendt has a home and keeps livestock on 5 acres on Karluk. Not only is her ground saturated, as well, but pools of standing water cover about 80 percent of her property. She’s run out of dry places to keep her livestock, so she’s had to butcher most of them. The weekend’s rains made matters even worse.
“We had to get rid of probably half our breeding stock of pigs,” Wendt said Monday. “We’re looking at maybe having to get rid of all the pigs and maybe even get out of farming altogether.”
Nikki O’Connor awoke to a new wrinkle in her soggy nightmare Saturday when she realized that her electrical breakers had tripped sometime during the night, shutting off power to the two water pumps attempting to keep the worst of the flooding out of the crawl space.
“The furnace was underwater by morning. Then when your water shuts off your hoses freeze up and you’ve got to get those flowing again and wait five six, hours for all the water to get pumped,” she said.
Her husband was working out of town so it was on her, with the help of her kindly neighbors and friends — who gave her chest waders, for instance — to deal with it. But there simply isn’t much anyone can do.
“It’s coming from everywhere. I have nowhere to put water because it’s not flowing anywhere. We can’t dig and move water because if you try to dig the hole just fills up with water,” she said.
She and other residents have been in regular contact with the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management, but the culverts and ditches borough road crews have already put in haven’t proven to be enough of a fix. The excess water appears to be impeded, just pooling in the area.
“The ultimate goal is to get it to go to the ocean, but they (the borough) have to go around or through private property and that takes all kinds of permits. That could be a couple-year process. And they wouldn’t start until at least spring,” O’Connor said. “There’s nothing that’s going to happen immediately. So I imagine that this is just the beginning of it. The ground’s thawed out now, but what is it going to look like when everything freezes?”
Vollom-Matturro and her husband, Greg, have lived on Karluk for 20 years, and she said she’s never seen flooding problems like this before.
“There are times in breakup where there’s flooding for, like, two days, but not nearly this bad. There’s flooding because that’s just what we do in breakup, but ho-ly cow. Nothing like this,” she said.
Karluk isn’t part of the large wetlands area behind the neighborhood, stretching from Bridge Access Road down toward Kasilof. Or, at least, it hasn’t been as long as Vollom-Matturro has lived there. But she thinks that changes to the hydrology of the area in recent years have impeded the natural patterns of drainage.
“Where I live has never been part of the wetlands. Just a couple of roads over, yes, but not where we are. But now we really are wetlands, the water table is so high,” she said. “The natural flow has been disrupted — you can see it, there’s evidence of it.”
She said that the wetlands used to drain to the north primarily into the beaver pond near the Bridge Access Road intersection, then through culverts under K-Beach into the Kenai River. When water got really high, a gravel pit near her house would also fill with water, then drain, she said.
“That beaver pond is dry, and the gravel pit by our house is dry. The natural watershed has been totally disrupted,” she said.
To the south of their neighborhood, water used to drain through another culvert under K-Beach into Cook Inlet, the one at about Mile 11 that was the source of a section of K-Beach collapsing in 2012 when the culvert failed. The culvert was replaced, and Vollom-Matturro, walking on the beach over the weekend, expected it to be filled with water draining from the wetlands.
“You would have thought that thing would be screaming. But no, I was able to step right over it. So, hello? Where is all this water going? To us,” she said.
She said she started noticing a change to the water table six years ago, when a developer extended Buoy Avenue and put in a subdivision. Her guess is that development has hardened areas of the wetlands and impeded natural drainage routes.
“I used to hike out there. Three years after Buoy went in hiking was done. You couldn’t walk out there, it was too wet. Then two years later you couldn’t pick berries or anything back there, the four-wheel trails are gone because they’re completely underwater. I watched the progression just go and go and go, and now the wetlands are basically right on top of us, and before they used to take care of themselves,” she said.
The borough has said that the situation is in part a result of a combination of conditions. A deep, long-lasting frost last winter coupled with recent falls of particularly wet weather following a period of drought has in general recharged the water table throughout the Kenai River watershed. But areas where development has hardened wetlands drainage hasn’t helped matters. A study of the topography of the area is underway to determine if there are ways to improve drainage without just shunting flooding problems to other areas, but if a solution is discovered in that study, it won’t be undertaken until next spring, at the very earliest.
In the meantime, the borough has limited authority, only able to protect borough infrastructure and monitor the situation for health- and safety-related issues. It can’t do anything on private roads, such as the spur road on which the Lingenfelters live.
She contacted the borough about putting in ditches and culverts along the road, to help drain water from her and her neighbors’ cabins, but was told the neighbors would have to form a local improvement district to get the road up to borough standards before the borough could take over maintenance jurisdiction. That requires affected landowners to pony up money — as much as $80,000, Lingenfelter said — to upgrade the road. And beyond that the LID process requires 70 percent approval from all adjacent landowners. Her in-town neighbors agreed when she asked them, Lingenfelter said, but she fears it’s a lost cause among landowners who live off the peninsula or out of state.
“These people with tiny little cabins that don’t have to live here, they don’t want to help,” she said.
Lingenfelter said she also contacted the Red Cross. Representatives were very kind but could only offer to put the family up in a hotel for a week, Lingerfelter said. She’s starting to look at rental options if her septic and water end up being out of commission for the winter, as they could well be if the ground freezes in its current saturated state.
“I want to stay here but it’s just day by day to see how bad it gets if it will be doable to live here all winter,” she said.
O’Connor, too, said that she’s considering finding a rental for the winter but doesn’t think it will be economically feasible.
“Our electrical bills are 2.5 times what they are normally because we’re running two pumps 24 hours a day,” she said. “I’ve been looking at rental ads but it’s kind of tough to swallow taking on another housing payment when you’ve already got one.”
Add to that the fact that homeowner insurance won’t cover damages caused by flooding groundwater — and that residents in the area can’t even get flood insurance. So all the costs to fix their driveways, flooded basements and crawl spaces, septic and well systems will come straight from their pockets.
“We’re already resigned to the fact that we’ll be having to put in new septic and maybe a new well,” O’Connor said. “I have a mortgage on my place, I can’t walk on that without it haunting me. So what do you do, other than gut it out?” she said.
Selling isn’t much of an option, because who would want to buy a home with obvious, serious flooding issues?
Maybe they could play with creative marketing, Lingenfelter said.
“If I can turn around and sell it for lakefront property, instead of crappola, then that would be all right,” she joked.
And it’s back to humor, about the only coping mechanism residents have left, along with help from each other and as much of a sunny attitude as they can manage amid all the water.
“As unlucky and burdened as we feel right now I still have hope things will work out some way, somehow. I’m just not sure what that will be,” O’Connor said. “It’s a nightmare, but I still like to think positively. I might have a wet roof over my house, but it’s a roof. It feels a bit like I’m camping. I’m paying a lot of money to camp right now.”
“It is what it is. We’re all alive, it’s just a bummer,” Vollom-Matturro said. “Hopefully I’ll look out one day and see ducks swimming down my road. That will make me happy. I’m laughing because it’s the only thing you can do.”