Assembly reaches land deal on Karluk Basin

Four years after flooding led to scrambling and confusion in the Kalifornsky area, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly finally reached an agreement on how flooding in the area may be dealt with in the future.

The assembly passed a resolution at its Aug. 15 meeting providing for a permanent drainage easement on a piece of property near the intersection of Karluk Avenue and Kalifornsky Beach Road, around Mile 13. The resolution gives the landowner, Paula Keohane, an approximately $51,000 credit to use in a borough over-the-counter land sale in exchange for a permanent drainage easement on the northern 4.3 acres of the property, a low-lying area known as the Karluk Basin.

The borough administration tried twice before to obtain either the property or an easement on it through ordinances, both of which the assembly defeated, primarily because of concerns over the value for the borough.

The resolution the assembly approved gives Keohane a credit to use to purchase land from the borough in an over-the-counter land sale. The borough regularly auctions off land it holds in public sales, but sometimes, there are parcels that don’t sell, and those are sold for a fixed price in an over-the-counter sale, said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre during the assembly meeting Aug. 15. If the price of the parcel Keohane chooses is more than the credit, she will have to cover the rest, he said.

“In return, the borough gets in perpetuity a 4.3-acre drainage easement, which means that Mrs. Keohane can still use the property but she can’t build anything on it, she can’t change the dynamics, she can’t impact the drainage easement in an negative way so that it will be available in case of an emergency situation,” he said.

Background

In 2013, the basin filled with water and overflowed into the neighboring roadway. The source of the flooding is thought to be due to high groundwater from a month of heavy rains and possibly from a prior year of heavy snowfalls, aggravated by two days of significant rainfall in late October 2013, leaving some landowners to the east of K-Beach Road with standing water in their basements and yards.

To help alleviate the flooding in the basin, the borough administration ran a drainage hose from the property under K-Beach Road and across the bluff to drain into Cook Inlet, ultimately pumping about 6 million gallons of water in two rounds out of the basin. After the floodwaters receded, residents began meeting and pressuring the borough to develop a better drainage system, and the borough began negotiating with Keohane about possibly purchasing the basin property as an emergency measure in case the flooding ever happens again.

“As the water management function on this property was demonstrated to be a low cost alternative to other means of road ditch extension, the acquisition of a drainage easement was identified as being in the long term interests of the borough,” wrote borough Land Management Officer Marcus Mueller in a memo to the assembly.

For the first time in the nearly three years this issue has been before the assembly, Keohane attended the meetings to testify about the land. The land is part of her family’s original homestead in the K-Beach area and before the flooding event, she used it for farming every summer. She said she didn’t want to sell the land because of its history with her family but wanted to help the community if possible.

“I just believe that I can help the community by having that asset available and I don’t believe it will conflict with my dreams for the property to be grass growing, maybe some goats,” she said. “I don’t intend to build anything there … I would object to a concrete-lined basin there, actually. I don’t see that need as described to me and put in that concept drawing as being in conflict with my plans and hopes for that piece of land.”

Water movement

It’s been hard even for experts to determine what’s exactly happening with the water movement in the area. Locals, concerned that K-Beach Road was acting like a dam and blocking water from moving out to Cook Inlet, have asked the borough to develop an extensive drainage system with culverts and ditches to move water across the surface outward to Cook Inlet. Navarre has repeatedly said the borough doesn’t have drainage authority and that the drainage gallery ditches the borough built along in the area allows the water to percolate downward and seep through the bluff.

In a presentation during the lands committee Aug. 15, Mueller explained that the extensive development to the east of K-Beach Road has altered the natural water behavior in the area. Formerly peatlands, the clearing and removal of highly absorbent peat leads to more water moving on the surface. The natural drainage is for the water to move downward and percolate out through the bluff to the beach, which can be seen in the common seeps on the tall bluff above the beaches in the area, he said.

“The wetland drainage going on in that landscape is relatively new to that landscape,” he said. “This landscape has been around for a long time but the wetland drainage is new to it. In a way, it’s like putting a pinprick in a water balloon … it’s converting slower moving water into faster moving water. Wetland drainage tends to cause unmanaged, unmitigated effects downstream.”

It was difficult even for experts to isolate exactly how the water moved at the time, Navarre said. Mueller emphasized that the gravity-based drainage system in the area would be difficult — the area is extremely flat and would have a large footprint, and a closed drainage system would be prohibitively expensive.

“The ditches that you have to create to get water from where it’s at to the bluff — they would have to be deep or they would have to be very wide,” he said. “It’s not that it couldn’t be done, but they would have their own issues. And then there’s no obvious way to cross K-Beach without really tearing K-Beach open and putting something across there.”

Assembly member Stan Welles urged the assembly to support it, saying it was the most cost-efficient way per gallon to address the problem when it arises.

“At the Karluk Basin, we had millions of gallons of water that we dealt with, and when you look at the cost per gallon … this ordinance that we have in front of us is an excellent value for the dollar for the service provided,” he said.

The assembly approved the resolution 6-3, with assembly members Dale Bagley, Brent Hibbert and Kenn Carpenter voting against it.

Navarre thanked the assembly for passing the resolution, saying it was good to finally have something in place.

“I think it’s important and it’s something that I felt committed to because I had the original discussion with Mrs. Keohane back in 2013 when we were in the middle of a flood and … emergency,” he said. “…It’s gotten awfully convoluted between then and now, so I’m glad that after several attempts at it, we were able to reach a resolution.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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