Seward flood service area works toward long-term goals

More than four inches of rain fell in the Seward area between Sunday night and Monday, pushing up stream levels and sending gravel cascading downstream.

The Anchorage Office of Emergency Management issued a flood advisory lasting until noon Monday for high stream levels in the Resurrection River and Salmon Creek near Seward. Minor flooding on both creeks was recorded.

Workers from the Seward Public Works Department spent all night Monday clearing gravel away from the outfall of Lowell Creek, which emerges in a waterfall at the south end of Seward near the road to Lowell Point. In high water conditions, sediment coming downstream turns the waterfall grey and can accumulate on and under the bridge there, said Doug Schoessler, director of the Seward Public Works Department.

Staff worked to remove some of the gravel from beneath the bridge to lower the water level, which had come up within a few feet of the bridge. The rain has now stopped and the bridge is safe, he said.

“I’d say we’re pretty well under control at this point,” Schoessler said.

The heavy rain also damaged some of the gravel roads in the city, leaving ruts the Public Works Department is still in the process of repairing, he said. More rain is predicted for the Seward area this week, according to the National Weather Service.

The Seward area regularly struggles with high water and flood conditions. Positioned at the head of Resurrection Bay with a number of waterways running through town, Seward is built on what is called an alluvial fan, a buildup of sediment deposited by streams over time typically prone to floods. The streams move large amounts of gravel down from the nearby Chugach Mountains into Resurrection Bay.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough formed the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area in 2003 specifically to address flooding concerns. Residents of the service area pay a .75 mill levy to contribute to flood mitigation projects, ranging from gravel removal to long-term projects that will help reduce flood risks.

The borough assembly has approved several projects for the flood service area recently, including a $30,000 project to remove sediment from beneath the Forest Road Bridge over Lost Creek, where a recent storm deposited a large amount of sediment that pushed water levels up to approximately three feet beneath the bridge. The last mitigation project done on the creek, which occurred in the winter of 2012 to 2013, cost approximately $258,000, according to a memo from borough hydrologist Dan Mahalak to the borough assembly. The service area board approved an expenditure of up to $30,000, and the borough’s Road Service Area is considering contributing funds to the project to protect infrastructure, he wrote.

“The Seward Bear Creek Flood Service Area faces a large number of ongoing mitigation projects with a limited fund balance,” he wrote.

The service area board is also working on an approximately $20,845 sedimentation study through the University of Alaska Fairbanks, contributing $50,000 to the City of Seward’s efforts on a flood mitigation effort on a community playground and coordinating a larger long-term project to redesign an embankment on Salmon Creek, estimated to cost approximately $3.28 million to construct.

The service area board’s bylaws commission the members to “provide flood protection, planning and mitigation services within the Seward/Bear Creek Flood Service Area.” Sometimes residents feel the board should respond to smaller alleviation areas because everyone pays taxes into the service area, but with limited funds, they cannot always provide both short-term alleviation and plan for long-term projects, said Bill Williamson, chairman of the service area board.

“With all the fiscal crunches that are going on right now, everybody is looking to us to fix their local problems,” he said. “That’s not what the board was created for. The board was created to fix larger problems in the area.”

The service area board encourages residents seeking to build or buy in flood-prone areas to learn about building styles adapted for flooding and to buy flood insurance, he said.

Unless the bylaws are changed, the service area board will continue to work on those long-term projects. Gravel removal can help briefly, but it is no long-term fix, he said. Seward regularly has to maintain the area beneath the Lowell Creek Falls, pushing the gravel further out into the bay. On many streams in the area, if workers clear out the gravel, it will build back up again before long, he said.

One of the longer-term solutions is to channelize rivers, the way the proposed Salmon Creek project would. The project would raise up the bank beside a section of the stream to create a 1,500-foot-long berm, placing a 1.5-foot-thick layer of filter rock and a 3-foot-thick layer of armor rock on the berm, upgrading a mud trail with gravel to access the site and constructing a 1,500-foot-long gravel trail and gravel parking lot to facilitate public use of the area, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Finding of No Significant Impact on the project, published in August 2015.

The borough will have to pay approximately $1.16 million for the project, matching the federal share of $2.16 million, according to the Finding of No Significant Impact.

Going through the National Environmental Protection Act process to get the project approved is expensive, and many of the creeks in the area would also be candidates for a similar project, Williamson said. The service area board identified the area nearby Salmon Creek as a priority area because of the high value of the infrastructure there, but that’s part of why the members want to save their funds for long-term projects — there’s a lot to do, he said.

“The problem will never go away,” Williamson said. “It’s where we live. The creeks make the land to build on. Without having proper drainage, it’s going to keep doing this.”

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

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