Editor’s note: This is the final in a series of stories examining the lasting impact of Kenai River flooding and ice jams this winter.
The winter’s ice jams may have destroyed boat ramps and fishing docks along the banks of the lower Kenai River, but scientists say it left a good impression on the river. Thanks to landowners’ diligence, existing debris is minimal and the ice itself might have added nutrients to the water and carved new fishing holes, dropoffs and channels.
John Mohorcich, Kenai River Center manager, said ice jams are a natural part of the river’s ecosystem and the recent one changed things slightly.
“For the most part the ice did a lot of damage to above-ground vegetation, but the ground and soils themselves stayed intact,” he said. “It’s like most natural disasters. If you look at wildfires or tornados, Mother Nature very rarely comes in and destroys everything.”
It would take a lot make significant changes to the river, Mohorcich said.
“The Kenai River is a pretty entrenched type of system, unlike a glacier river over in Seward where it really meanders and might move a half mile depending on a storm or how many depositions the river deposits,” he said.
Despite the damage to his property, Joe Connors, owner of Big Sky Charter and Fishcamp in Sterling, said he hasn’t noticed a physical change to the river itself. When Torpedo Lake drained last year, Connors said it blew out a hole in the hill 10 yards wide and created a sand bar in the river. And the draining of Killey River a year or two before did the same thing.
“Those things have resulted in a significant difference that’s lasting,” he said. “This ice flood, when it melted, it was gone. I’m not aware of major changes in terms of the river.”
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, ventured out in a kayak as soon as good weather set in, and said that ice in some places was as high as 15 feet. While a lot of damage occurred to property and infrastructure, the ice didn’t obliterate standing trees or scour the banks.
“For as much force and as much shifting and damages that were going on, there was very little damage done to natural vegetation and the bank itself,” Ruffner said. “(There was) a spot in the river in the Sterling area and one here in Soldotna where 20 to 30 feet of bank got ripped out. In general, for the amount of ice and sheer force there was not as much damage to the banks themselves.”
Ruffner also said alder and willow root-balls stayed intact.
“Where there were alders and willows growing along the river, it stripped the bark off but it didn’t tear them out of the ground,” he said.
After the ice melted and water level returned to normal, landowners and neighborhoods pulled together to remove broken infrastructure from the river. State park officials floated downstream taking out debris, but Mohorcich said he’s surprised more material hasn’t been reeled in on an angler’s hook.
“It’s somewhat of a mystery,” he said, adding that he’s sure something is out there. “Inspections were done from the land trying to locate those things. Throughout that whole process there wasn’t what we would call a large amount of debris in the river that was hazardous or a safety concern to boaters.”
Connors said he reeled in an aluminum railing, but that was the only obstruction he’s seen since the ice melted.
“It was just a bent-up railing six to eight feet long with a side piece that was bolted on,” he said.
Ruffner thinks more debris is out there, but nothing to the extent of what was found in January.
“Everyone was pretty concerned that there would be a lot of material out there,” he said. “As it turns out there’s not really that much.”
Mohorcich said another concern people might have is hazardous materials leaching into the water from decomposing debris, but he said that’s not a major concern either.
“The positive thing is that, under the permitting process as of 1996, we don’t allow some of the more toxic wood types or preservatives to be used in the construction of these walkways and stairways,” he said. “Mostly nowadays it’s metals and the brown woods or deck woods rather than the old creosol telephone poles or railroad ties and toxic wood preservative.”
As for whether any more debris will turn up, Mohorcich said he is still waiting for anglers to venture further upstream.
“We know there is some missing infrastructure,” he said. “Where actually did it end up going? We don’t know.”
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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