Ice disappears, damage doesn’t

Winter Kenai River flooding left lasting marks

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining the lasting impact of Kenai River flooding and ice jams this winter. Tomorrow’s story is on the process of rebuilding damaged river structures.

  Ice chunks from Kenai River flooding crush a boardwalk at Swiftwater Park in Soldotna on Feb. 18. Clarion file photo


Ice chunks from Kenai River flooding crush a boardwalk at Swiftwater Park in Soldotna on Feb. 18.

Clarion file photo

It was a bad winter for living along the Kenai River.

Normally idyllic for the scenic beauty and quick access, owning property along Alaska’s premier fishing stream turned into a nightmare in late January and February when an ice dam at Skilak Lake gave way, sending a surge of water into the river that loosened tons of accumulated winter ice, sending it coursing downstream toward Cook Inlet.

Along the way it tore swaths of established vegetation from its roots and made matchsticks and metal pretzels of decades of manmade structures. Low-lying subdivisions were flooded, and for a time the detritus and high water threatened the temporary and under-construction Sterling Highway bridges in Soldotna.

The latest estimates put the flood damage in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, which includes damage to federal, state, borough and city of Soldotna property, said Scott Walden, head of the borough’s Office of Emergency Management.

Complete estimates are not yet available for private property damage, he said.

The borough’s own “direct and tangible” damage — mostly to Kenai River Center docks and walkways — is estimated at $110,000. Earlier this year, the assembly appropriated $150,000 to cover damage-related costs.

“The emergency appropriation was right on the mark,” Walden said, adding that he does not anticipate any more would be needed and at least some of the expenditures may be eligible for state and federal disaster aid reimbursement.

Private property owners, Walden said, have been encouraged to file damage reports and to seek aid through the river center. Part of the borough’s $150,000 appropriation is being used to pay two temporary employees to help address issues facing private property owners. They are expected to work through August.

Ice jam flooding on the Kenai River is fairly common. A list of occurrences dating back to 1969 may be found at the Office of Emergency Management’s Web site.

A lobe of the Harding Ice Field called the Skilak Glacier is the culprit. Water normally drains into Skilak Lake beneath the glacier, but occasionally the ice gives way, allowing a lot of water to surge into the river system in a short period of time. When that happens — most often in the late fall — the surge can break up river ice cover and send floes coursing downstream. When the ice finds choke points it can pile up and cause flooding.

The highest water level ever measured at Soldotna occurred in January 1969 when ice jams backed up water to a height of 22.69 feet.

By comparison, water levels reached 20 feet in Soldotna on Jan. 28 of this year when an ice jam formed a half-mile downstream from the Soldotna bridge.

Other water dump events at Skilak Lake that sent high water into the Kenai were recorded in 1971, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1985, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004. Not all led to downstream flooding, however.

Walden said the borough got only one report of in-home flood damage resulting from water backing up in low-lying areas, though there may have been more. He said less than 20 people had reported general damages during a reporting period that was aimed at assessing damage, but was not attached specifically to financial relief programs.

Government officials and landowners have learned valuable lessons as a result of the high water and ice damage, Walden said. For one thing, reconstruction of docks, staircases and walkways are likely to be built of tough metal rather than wood, though the river ice did damage metal structures, as well. Also, some facilities would no doubt be designed and built so they could be retracted like drawbridges to pull them out of the way of future ice floes, Walden said.

On a good note, Walden said much of the habitat restoration work done in recent years by property owners in conjunction with the Kenai River Sports Fishing Association and other organizations survived the ice.

“The majority of it held strong,” Walden said.

Andrew Carmichael, parks and recreation director for the city of Soldotna, said current estimates place the damage inside the city at between $1.3 million and $1.6 million. Some $330,000 has so far been appropriated by the city for initial repairs. State and federal programs may reimburse some of that, but how much is not yet known.

Designers garnered a valuable lesson from the way a recently completed fishing platform at Soldotna Creek responded to the passing ice, Carmichael said. Faceplate added to the supports knocked the ice back into the water, essentially saving the platform from damage. He said that feature is now part of the Soldotna Visitor Center boardwalk design.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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