‘It’s just hit or miss’

Ice severely damaged some spots, spared others

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories examining the lasting impact of Kenai River flooding and ice jams this winter. Thursday’s story is on the impact to municipal structures along the riverbank.

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  Ice pans litter the banks of the river in April. Ice did most of the to riverfront property damage during winter floods and jamming. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Bill Sweat watched in January as a mountain of ice moved down the Kenai River, scouring vegetation from the bank, snapping off trees and pulverizing any man-made structures in its path.


Bill Sweat talks about the new dock he had to install at his Beluga Bill's Kenai River Lodge in Sterling following damage from this spring's Kenai River flooding. "There's some people who had some fantastic money into their docks," he said. "We were able to reutilize a lot of my dock but some of it had to be hauled off."

Photos by M. Scott Moon

“Every once in a while, Mother Nature will clean things up for you,” said Sweat, owner of Beluga Bill’s Kenai River Lodge just off Scout Lake Road in Sterling. “She did a good job of it this time.”

Sweat has been working since then to get his riverfront lodge ready for the annual summer return of guests.

“I had a lot of cleanup to do. The old dock, I had to take completely apart and put in a new one. I’m repairing decks, replanting trees, doing erosion control projects — I’m using a lot of raspberries, a lot of wild roses, and willows and alders,” Sweat said.


Ice pans litter the banks of the river in April. Ice did most of the to riverfront property damage during winter floods and jamming.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Sweat is just one of many riverfront property owners facing the task of restoring banks and repairing and rebuilding their docks, boardwalks and other structures used to access the Kenai River.

John Mohorcich, Kenai River Center manager, estimated that 950 parcels may have been affected by ice and flooding. Most of the damage, he said, occurred between the confluence of the Moose River and the Kenai River in Sterling and the area in Soldotna where Slikok Creek joins the Kenai, a distance of about 18 river miles.

A number of government disaster declarations have made funds available to repair the millions of dollars of damage to various public boardwalks and river access projects. Private riverfront landowners, however, are on the hook for the costs associated with rebuilding and restoration projects along the river.

“The city of Soldotna declared a disaster, as did the borough and the state,” Mohorcich said. “Unfortunately, none of those declarations provided funds for private landowners to rebuild.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game have developed a cost-share program to help with riverbank projects, but with limited funds available, simply replacing a private fishwalk often doesn’t merit the reimbursement provided by the program.

Mohorcich said the best break for riverfront property owners comes from the borough, which has tax credit and tax exemption programs to help property owners recoup some of their expenses for habitat protection and restoration projects.

With the costs of building materials skyrocketing, and because of the extent of the damage in some spots, many lot owners will spread out their projects over a couple of years.

Dennis Merkes, a contractor and owner of Merkes Builders Unlimited, said the cost of steel has increased 30 to 40 percent over the past few years.

“Some projects are very spendy,” said Merkes, who estimated his crews to have worked on 40 rebuilding projects this spring. “We’ve done some partial repairs, left portions not repaired, and we’ll do a second phase next year.”

Sweat chose to rebuild his riverside deck and boardwalk using wood, a decision he said saved him about $70,000. Sweat said he’s been putting off the bad news as far as totaling his expenses, but his rebuilding and restoration is approaching $20,000.

One of the more complicated aspects of repair and restoration work is obtaining the proper permits to do the work. In fact, Sweat said lot owners were initially confused about what they could and could not clean up — according to a letter sent to riverfront property owners from Kenai River Center staff, permits are needed to do any work within 50 feet or the river, including removal of debris.

Permitting for wetlands projects is coordinated through the Kenai River Center, where officials from the borough, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers work together to work through the various jurisdictions a riverbank project might encompass, and issue permits accordingly.

Mohorcich said ice damage from this past winter has doubled the Kenai River Center’s workload. The multi-agency center has processed 485 permit applications since January — 216 of them directly related to ice damage, with more still coming in. By comparison, the center handled 417 permits all of last year.

The permitting process can be complex, particularly when it comes to wetlands projects. Anything within 50 feet of the ordinary high water mark falls, needs borough habitat protection area approval; Soldotna requires a permit for projects within 100 feet of the river within city limits; anything outside Kenai or Soldotna city limits may require a borough floodplain permit. Moose Range Meadows subdivision falls under Kenai National Wildlife Refuge jurisdiction; much of the river is under the purview of Alaska State Parks. Anything overhanging or extending into the river requires Corps of Engineers approval.

“You can see why it’s confusing for landowners,” Mohorcich said.

Kenai River Center officials worked to streamline the permit process for ice and flood damage cleanup and repair, and Mohorcich said the center averaged about two weeks to process applications and issue permits — though some may have taken up to 30 days.

“Everyone in here worked overtime to get permits out, and we did a lot more site visits,” he said.

Permits have come into the Kenai River Center in three waves, Mohorcich said. The first came from year-round residents who began assessing damage immediately after the ice jam. Merkes toted an extension ladder from home to home to climb down the ice to the riverbank to assess damage. Mohorcich said he came in with a stack of permit applications right away.

The next wave came a month or so after the flood, when people who had followed information posted on the borough’s Office of Emergency Management Web site or in the newspaper were able to begin submitting permit applications.

The final round of permit applications still is being received as summer residents return.

“We still get a few people walking in and asking, ‘What happened?’” Mohorcich said.

Mohorcich said it helped to have a group of contractors who had worked with Kenai River Center staff for several years and were familiar with the permitting process.

“Permitting is always a struggle, but the folks at the Kenai River Center are very good people. We work our way through it, but it can be a frustrating situation,” Merkes said. “I’ve got two, 4-inch binders full of permits. It’s not a simple process to get permits in order.”

The amount of damage to individual property owners varied. Vegetation was scoured from the banks in some parts of the river, but remained intact in most places — something Mohorcich attributed to the ground being frozen with adequate snowfall for protection.

Most of the damage was to man-made structures. While some were mangled beyond recognition, other structures sustained minimal damage, with some bending at the leading edge. Merkes said he saw several structures buried under several feet of ice that came through the winter unscathed.

Stairs leading down to the river’s edge also were damaged. Ice floes caught on the bottom of the stairways and pulled until the upper ends twisted and gave way.

“It’s just hit or miss. It all depends on where it was in the ice floes. It all depends on how lucky the person was,” Merkes said.

Merkes and Sweat said they put in supply orders shortly after the flood, once they had assessed what they would need. Sweat said the one problem he encountered was finding U-bolts to complete his project. He ended up placing an order over the Internet with an out-of-state supplier, and the shipping costs were nearly as much as the cost of the hardware.

Merkes said his biggest challenge has been getting all his projects done in time for clients to start fishing.

“My crew can only work so much overtime — then they get tired,” Merkes said.

Damage to fishwalks does not appear to have affected summer plans. Sweat said much of his client base is made up of returning guests. He had several ask about damage, but was able to reassure them they’d have a place to fish come summer.

Michelle Glaves, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said it was business as usual at area lodges and bed and breakfasts.

“When we were at the sport and rec show in Anchorage, there were a lot of questions, but the city responded so quickly. There’s a brochure the city produced with a timeline on when they were going to fix everything, so we had that information for people who did ask,” Glaves said.

Bank protection and restoration workshops scheduled

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct workshops for landowners interested in bank restoration and protection projects. Topics covered will include the cost share program, permitting and restoration techniques such as cabled spruce trees, elevated light-penetrating walkways, brush layering and other techniques to stabilize banks.

Workshops at the Kenai River Center on Funny River Road are scheduled for July 20 from 5 to 7 p.m.; July 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. and Aug. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

For more information, contact Dean Hughes at 267-2207 or by e-mail at dean_hughes@fishgame.state.ak.us, or Mike Edwards at 260-0125 or mike_edwards@fws.gov.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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