Conjuring up a biblical story, District 1 Borough Assembly member Kelly Wolf closed Tuesday’s regular meeting by saying that his Kalifornsky Beach constituents might do well to build an ark.
“More rain is coming,” he said.
Unlike the story of Noah’s ark, rain is not the primary culprit — as far as anyone knows — behind recent groundwater flooding; in fact no one really knows where that water is coming from, how long it will continue to flow or how much is yet to come.
While it’s fairly obvious that the October 28 rain event pushed floodwaters higher than previously seen, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining Land and Water Chief of the Water Resources Section David Schade said there is no way to say what exactly is causing the groundwater flooding. What is needed is a long-term study, he said while noting that money for just such a study was pulled from the table during the last week of the 2013 Legislative session.
“There is a pressure head,” Schade said. “It’s not likely to go down (soon).”
More destructive that the groundwater and now-receding surface water that have flooded roads, basements, some homes and causing backups to septic systems leading to contaminated drinking water wells is the coming freeze.
“Ice is one of the most destructive and powerful forces on Earth,” said Melissa Hill, a hydrologist with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining, Land and Water.
Hill and Schade have been working with the Kenai Peninsula Borough trying to understand the nature of the flooding. What is known is a patchwork of peat bog-muskeg, glacial moraines and an ancient lakebed covering K-Beach are all barriers to good drainage, Hill said.
She’s working off two previous studies, one a 1996 groundwater conditions and quality study on the Western Kenai Peninsula and a 1971 USGS study hydrologic study of the Central Peninsula done with the borough.
Though much of the state work has resulted in more questions than answers, Hill and Schade can affirmatively say two things: The K-Beach area today, with all the roads and ditches in place is like an ice cube tray set on a slight angle. Water fills one cube and then spills into the next until the entire tray is full. What was once a single basin is now a subdivided basin. The water “has nowhere to go,” Hill said.
The second is that development in the area likely caused some of the water problems. When some layers of earth capping pressurized artesian wells and springs are scraped away or removed for development it opens pressure wells in some areas.
Hill showed the borough aerial photos of K-Beach in 1951 and 1986. The former shows undeveloped wetlands, the second shows homes and roads built between the wetlands and Cook Inlet.
Kenaitze Indian Tribe Elder Clare Swan and her husband have lived in the flooded zone since 1988. This fall’s flooding is the first she can personally recall in the neighborhood. However, she knows the area is a natural drainage and heard a story of the Kalifornsky Village being wiped out by flooding in 1929. Peter Kalifornsky, who was a tribal scholar, said a flood washed out the whole place and carved gullies above the beach, Swan said.
Many homeowners in the flooded area are very vocal and very mad at the borough for not helping them, though the borough leadership has been clear about the limits of its jurisdiction as a Second Class Borough. In recent weeks several citizens have tried to install culverts and dig their own ditches to drain the water and a growing number of residents are calling for a drainage canal to be built.
Tuesday, Schade and Hill updated the Kenai Borough Assembly on their findings and said a real danger exists in racing for a “fix” without doing the right amount of research. People want the government to deal with the sub-surface water and that’s a very dangerous thing. It could be made worse, Schade said.
“We can’t yet say where the water is coming from or what caused it,” Schade said. “It frustrates the people with flooded houses.”
Without 20 years of data the possibility of responding to a yearly variation rather than a long-term trend becomes a problem. Hill said some question exists about the build-up to this flooding event being tied to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a 20-to-30 year cyclical warming and cooling of the ocean tracked back to the early 17th century.
“Is this the new normal or not?” Hill asked.
Reach Greg Skinner at firstname.lastname@example.org.