Officials still advising caution

Rising waters slowing

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001

The rising of the Kenai River and its upper tributaries has slowed due to a change in weather, said Ben Balk of the National Weather Service's Alaska River Forecast Center on Saturday.

"The big thing is at Cooper Landing where water levels have held relatively steady since Friday," Balk said. "Yesterday was cooler at the headwaters due to a little push of low-level marine air. That somewhat reduced the rate of snowmelt from the previous high levels."

Although it looks as though that pattern will continue through the weekend, Balk said, a rise in temperatures could result in river levels rising.

Officials are urging people to use extra caution on or near the rivers, but say flooding such as that seen in 1995 is highly unlikely.

However, Balk added that even if cooler weather prevails, it will take a long time for the water levels to drop significantly.

The volume of water coming out of Kenai Lake at Cooper Landing is twice normal levels, and the river there has been at or above flood stage since Tuesday. The high water is due to unusually large snowpack in the Kenai Mountains melting all at once in the warm, June weather.

People with low-lying riverfront property should remove loose objects from their yards, check boat moorings and clean out or fasten down anything that may take on water. Anyone boating or on foot along the banks should wear personal flotation devices and watch out for debris such as floating trees in the water.

"We are not calling this a flood -- yet," said Kay Steele, administrative assistant in the Kenai Peninsula Borough's office of emergency management.

Freddy Miller has lived at Kenai Keys part time since 1976 and full time since 1989. He keeps an eye on the river and monitors the level as a volunteer for the National Weather Service. Now he is spending a lot of time on the phone telling absentee homeowners where the water is.

"Boy, we've sure put the word out," he said Friday.

The river was about two feet below flood stage by his house. He is not very worried about flooding this week, especially since he is a veteran of the 1995 flood, he said.

But Miller is watching water seep into sloughs and up the bank. He wants people to be wary of the situation and plan ahead.

People cannot stop the power of the river when it floods and are forced to stand by helplessly, he said.

"It is probably the most excruciating experience a person goes through," he said. "You sit here and watch it come."

Miller noted that the Killey River is pouring vast amounts of muddy water and debris into the system, too.

Last week, water was rising about 2 inches a day in the upper river. Friday it leveled off under cloudy skies.

River watchers got other good news Thursday night. An ice-dammed lake near Seward, which ruptured and helped precipitate the flood in 1995, remains in place and is unlikely to add to the flow.

Balk and other officials from the Alaska River Forecast Center flew over the Kenai Mountains and inspected the lake in the headwaters of the Snow River.

The lake, formed by a glacier, empties into the river system on average every third year, almost always in the fall. Some rumors attributed the current high waters to the lake dumping, but that is not the case.

"We do expect it to release sometime this summer, but not until later," Balk said.

Monitors have painted lines on a rocky outcropping in the glacial lake to provide a gauge of its depth.

"It is roughly 20 feet higher than last September, but about 30 below where it was when it released last," he said.

When its release in 1995 followed heavy rainfalls, the river flooded homes and accumulated so much debris that the state closed it to all boating for safety reasons.

Kenai Peninsula State Parks Superintendent Chris Degernes said it is unlikely the state will need to take such a step this time.

"It would take an extraordinary combination of conditions," she said. "If we have the current high water conditions and the Snow River (glacier dam) breaks, we would likely have the conditions to close the river."

Those conditions include hazards to boating, evacuations and toxic spills into the waterway, she explained.

Although closure is unlikely, she issued a warning to people to be extremely cautious. She noted that already one canoe had flipped in the Naptowne Rapids.

"The river is extra powerful with this much water," she said. "It reminds us of the power of nature. It humbles people."

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