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A changing river: Long-time residents recall ebb and flow of the Susitna

by Lorien Nettleton ~ November 16th, 2012

Ice in the river has been causing jams for several days, and water has risen in different places off and on since Sunday. As of 3 pm on Thursday, the water appears to have come closer to town flooding sloughs near the end of main street and moving swiftly along the banks closest to town at the end of the Village Air Strip on D street, where the riverbed is usually dry this time of year. KTNA’s Lorien Nettleton has more:

Listen to full story (5:20):

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One of the features of a wild and pristine river in Alaska, especially the glacial-fed rivers, is the constant change in the course of water flow. Braided streams are familiar sights to anyone who has spent time in the back country, and when left alone, rivers will frequently change courses dramatically, sometimes even season to season. But something that inspires awe and admiration in the back country can be a cause for concern when it enters your backyard.

Ice in the river has been causing jams for several days, and water has risen in different places off and on since Sunday. As of 5 pm on Thursday, the water appears to have come closer to town flooding sloughs near the end of main street and moving swiftly along the banks closest to town at the end of the Village Air Strip on D street, where the riverbed is usually dry this time of year.

But this is not the first time it has done this. The history books about the region are full of stories of structures moved by man or nature.

Brian Okonek has had a long personal history with the river. He says that based on aerial photography and personal experience, the river that fluctuates so wildly from year to year now looks like it’s bearing down on the Talkeetna town site.

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Okonek has made a case to Borough Planners that the damages done to the town’s flood defenses will need attention and repair before spring. In addition, Okonek has watched as the main channel of the Susitna river shifted eastward. As it appears now, the full flow of the Susitna river is aimed squarely at the town site of Talkeetna.

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Longtime Talkeetna resident Pat Pratt can remember high water in winter resembling this week’s high water. She was walking down main street one winter over 50 years ago and watched water and ice streaming through the west side of downtown. This was long before the dyke and revetment were put in place to protect the town. Many structures had long ago been abandoned to the river, and she says the remains of one old-time watering hole called Buckets of Blood were inundated with water and ice.

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The river has historically meandered all over the valley, and Prat recalls it being much closer to town than where it had been in recent times.

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After September’s flooding events, a number of repairs are anticipated to the flood-protection structures that protect the town site of Talkeetna from damage. Casey Cook is the Mat Su Borough’s Emergency Manager and is involved in flood repair and mitigation efforts. Cook says everything is waiting on a federal disaster declaration from President Obama to determine which programs can be initiated, and who will pick up the tab.

If President Obama signs the disaster declaration FEMA will take over, and the feds will provide teams of engineers to evaluate risks and arrive at estimates o how much it will cost. With the declaration of Federal disaster, five-percent of funding is to be used for Mitigation projects, meaning new defense structures or upgrades to existing ones.

Whether new defenses will be enough remains to be seen. Again, Brian Okonek

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