Slower glacier melt contributes to lower Kenai River level

Lower high-altitude snowpack, a cooler summer and more cloud cover may have contributed to a lower water level on the Kenai River.

Kenai Peninsula residents, especially anglers, may have noticed that the water level on the Kenai River seems lower than it usually is in the fall, after a summer of snowmelt and rain. Usually, the river level climbs throughout the summer as the daily temperatures heat up, melting the glaciers at the head of the river, and the snowpack in the mountains drains down to feed the tributaries.

However, this summer, the trend has been the other way. Since mid-July, the water level on the Kenai River near Cooper Landing has actually fallen, steadily falling between July 15 and Aug. 10, when it began to rise again. It has not come close to where it was in mid-July, though it is still above the level in mid-June, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains the streamflow gauges on the river.

The primary reason has been lower glacier melt, though there are multiple factors, said Chad Smith, the supervisory hydrologic technician with the USGS regional office in Anchorage.

“It’s been kind of a cooler year (and) there wasn’t a lot of upper elevation snowpack, so without a lot of the bright sunny days, there’s not as much of the glacier melt this year,” he said.

That’s not abnormal, though it seems that way after the abnormally warm summers for the past few years and relatively high number of sunny, warm days that spurred glacial melt and pushed up river levels, Smith said. Though many areas of the lowlands in Southcentral Alaska saw more snow this winter than in the past few years, the mountains actually had relatively little in the past winter.

Southcentral Alaska has had a relatively cool, rainy summer so far, with rainfall slightly above average in many areas, but the muskeg soils are not at saturation levels yet and the rivers are not seeing the direct runoff from precipitation, so the rain is not contributing to river levels as much as it will in the coming weeks, Smith said. August and September tend to be some of the rainiest months in Southcentral Alaska. So far, the rain has been periodic and relatively slow, though the heavier downpours are starting to show up.

“We haven’t had any really large sustained rainfall to kickstart that runoff,” he said.

Though some sunshine may poke through the clouds on Sunday, the National Weather Service is predicting rain every day from Friday through next Wednesday.

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

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