Marcus Ashkenasy used to like the rain. Now it’s something he dreads.
He lives near the intersection of Kalifornsky Beach Road and Bridge Access Road, in a house he bought in 2009.
“It was my first property,” he said, speaking from his front yard last week. “I was excited that it was close to town but it was a little out of town, (there’s the) little illusion of seclusion within the trees.”
Ashkenasy’s home is split-level, tucked back in the trees with a large front yard shaggy with green grass and dotted with white clover flowers. Next to a collection of lawn ornaments, piled near the front door, are large rolls of carpet saturated with water, which he pulled up recently from the lower level of his house.
It’s the second time Ashkenasy’s had to pull up the carpet in that area of his home in the last 10 years. This time, he’s not sure he’s going to replace it.
“I don’t want to put anything down there because I have no idea when this is going to resurface,” he said.
He’s referring to the water, which this spring first appeared in his walk-in closet before seeping out into his bedroom, then into the hallway, then into the game room and into his weight room on the opposite end of the house. He shouts over the sound of fans running in almost every room, which he’s using to try and speed up the drying process.
Ashkenasy’s story is hardly unique. He’s just one resident in a neighborhood well known for severe flooding that has, in the past, prompted local, state and federal intervention.
It’s been 10 years since the last major flooding event in the subdivision south of Kalifornsky Beach Road, near where it intersects with Bridge Access Road. The rain came at the end of October in 2013, on the heels of an especially rainy and snowy year, which caused the low-lying area’s already high water table to rise even higher.
The conditions made for disastrous circumstances for residents in the area.
The borough in November 2013 estimated that at least $2.1 million in damage to private property had occurred at 120 homes in the north Kalifornsky Beach area. According to previous Clarion reporting, tainted wells, flooded septic systems and flooded basements were all reported.
In response to that flooding event, the Red Cross opened a shelter for displaced residents, former President Barack Obama and Gov. Sean Parnell declared the flooding event a disaster and financial relief programs were made available to residents who suffered damages.
Mapping data prepared by the Kenai Watershed Forum and published by the Kenai Peninsula Borough as part of its geographic information services hub show that a large swath of land to the south of the subdivision is considered “discharge slope” wetlands, which occur where shallow groundwater emerges at or near the ground surface.
Per the Kenai Watershed Forum, discharge slopes are generally found at the transition from wetlands to uplands and support seasonally high water tables. The same region appears in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory as freshwater “forested/shrub” wetland habitat.
“The substrate is saturated at or near the surface for extended periods during the growing season, but unsaturated conditions prevail by the end of the season in most years,” the federal database says of the parcel immediately south of the subdivision. “Surface water is typically absent, but may occur for a few days after heavy rain and upland runoff.”
Borough topographical maps show that the area is mostly flat, but that water runs downhill from the wetlands area toward Cook Inlet, through the subdivisions along the inner side of Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Then, as now, some residents in the area are wondering where to look for relief.
‘I’m not going to do it again’
One of those residents is David Yragui, an area developer who purchased land in the area in 1999 with the goal of starting a ranch. In the years since, Yragui has acquired several other properties around Kalifornsky Beach Road and has been a vocal advocate for more borough action in response to flooding in the area.
Yragui says he’s tired waiting for a solution that, over the last 10 years, has failed to manifest. He is in the process of appealing the borough’s assessed taxable value of one of his properties, saying that their estimate is too high given the level of flooding he’s experienced.
“The bottom line is the money that you guys assess me for goes to pay for, for what you’re supposed to be doing for the community and you’re not doing it,” he told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Equalization on May 19.
Yragui in 2014, through an Anchorage law firm, sent a letter to the Kenai Peninsula Borough threatening a lawsuit if no meaningful action was taken to improve drainage in the affected areas, although no suit was ultimately filed. The letter says, among other things, that Yragui was forced to sell livestock due to flooding and that his well water tested positive for total coliform bacteria.
In both 2013 and last year, the borough served Yragui with various orders in response to ditching activities being conducted on and around his properties, asking him to stop working. Since last September, the borough has sent Yragui a cease and desist letter and a notice to stop work. Yragui on July 7 also received a cease and desist letter from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
The borough in mid-July ramped up its efforts to stop Yragui’s activities by filing a civil suit against him, saying that unpermitted ditching work around his various properties in the Kalifornsky Beach area are exacerbating flood conditions for nearby residents. As part of the suit, the borough is seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction, as well as compensation for damages.
This complaint specifically asks the court to prevent Yragui “from digging, ditching, constructing trenches and otherwise working within, in or upon land or rights-of-way owned by (the Kenai Peninsula Borough) without construction or encroachment permits issued by (the Kenai Peninsula Borough).”
There’s a trench full of water running along the eastern boundary of Yragui’s property in the affected neighborhood, that heads south for about half a mile, then cuts east for another half a mile, then cuts south for another half mile, terminating near his air park on Buoy Avenue. It’s that canal the borough identifies as its chief concern in the civil suit.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Director Robert Ruffner wrote in an affidavit accompanying the legal complaint that it’s his belief that, should the control structure at the head of the canal fill, “the release of approximately two million gallons of water will cause catastrophic damage to roads, utilities and residential and commercial properties in the area.”
Yragui sees it differently.
From his perspective, his ditches protect properties located west of it from water that would otherwise run into that area. He said problems associated with flooding are as familiar to him as to anyone else, and that he’s spent a lot of the money he had saved for retirement on responding to water crises.
“We had 20 inches of ice in our (ditch),” Yragui told the Board of Equalization in May. “ … So when everything broke up this year, because the water had no place to go, we flooded again. I’m not going to do it again. Either the borough takes care of this stuff or I’ll probably be in jail because I’m not going to sit and watch people flood like this again. It’s ridiculous.”
Yragui told the Clarion he’s less interested in assigning blame than he is in seeing action taken to mitigate flooding. Clearing out historic water channels in the area and advancing a drainage ditch along Seventh Avenue, he said, are potential solutions.
Ultimately, Yragui said he’s trying to stay positive, but that his plumbing background has him concerned about the potential for flooded septic systems and contaminated wells for he and his neighbors. Further, years of fighting floods, he said, have taken a toll on him and his wife. They’ve thought about moving Outside, but Yragui said he’s “not a quitter.”
“I really like Alaska,” he said. “This is where I wanted to live. It’s heartbreaking.”
In the wake of the 2013 Kalifornsky Beach flood, the borough maintained that it was limited in how it could respond to the event.
Former Assistant Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Elizabeth Leduc, in a 2014 response to Yragui’s threat of legal action, said the borough had “fully evaluated” ways it could respond to flooding in the Kalifornsky Beach area and that the borough’s authority is limited to road powers.
“It has been determined that the borough simply has no authority under state law or borough code to engage in storm-water management, wetland development or management, or any other general drainage efforts,” Leduc wrote.
Borough officials in 2015 said borough roads have historically been designed to hold water in ditches with the goal of allowing that water to absorb into underlying groundwater. Borough code says that roads shall be constructed in a way that runoff water is conveyed to natural drainage courses.
“What we don’t know (is) if that was a one-time event in a 20- or 30-year period or if it’s a new norm,” former Mayor Mike Navarre told assembly members at a work session on the flooding in 2015. “So should we react to it now? Or should we do, as we have been doing? That is, monitoring the situation, looking at data from monitoring wells, driving the areas, doing what we can in order to make sure we’re not making the problem worse, at the same time monitoring it so that, if necessary, we can react to it again.”
The borough has gone through four mayors in the time since the last major flooding event in the area, from Navarre, to Charlie Pierce, back to Navarre, and now Peter Micciche. Micciche said Tuesday that he thinks there are ways for the borough to have a positive impact in the community while still operating within the borough’s authority.
“When groundwater becomes surface water and we can convey some of that water responsibly through our ditch and culvert systems to where it meets state systems and safely goes to the inlet, then I feel like it is our responsibility to make sure that our subdivisions are operating to code when it comes to culverts and ditches,” Micciche said.
When it comes to moving water, Micciche said a bottom-up approach is crucial.
“That’s where you start moving water — from the bottom,” he said. “You know that you have an outlet, you start communicating to that outlet responsibly and you start moving up the hill because water flows downhill.”
Micciche earlier this year initiated a contract for up to $300,000 in borough Road Service Area funds for what he’s now calling the Eastway Drainage Project. The borough hired Soldotna company River City Construction LLC for the project, which included drainage, ditchings, embankment construction and clearing work in the area.
“The project is not a full solution for the periodic flooding issues present in this area, but will produce some support for water dissipation in the immediate vicinity of the project, as well as resolve some remaining code compliance issues,” the legislation said.
On the afternoon of July 21, crews in bulldozers could be seen installing a metal culvert at the intersection of Bjerke Street and Patrick Drive. By that Monday, water was flowing under the road.
Micciche said he also plans to hire a hydrologist for the borough that will be tasked with surveying the area and making recommendations. His goal is for the hydrologist to be a “fresh face” with no prior experience with flooding in the area, “in recognition of all the politics that have happened on this project.”
That’s on top of leveraging his statewide connections at other agencies with the proper authority over certain areas, such as the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
“I think, staying within our second class borough authorities … that we can make a difference,” Micciche said. “If something gets bigger, if there’s something up higher that needs to happen, then we’ll have to look at working with the other agencies for other authorities that allow those things to happen, but I’m willing to do that.”
The borough says, for example, that a failing culvert owned by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities isn’t helping flooding issues in the area. The culvert runs under Kalifornsky Beach Road at Dog Fish Avenue and is collapsed on the Cook Inlet side of the road. The earth around the culvert, which is leaking water, is eroded.
Micciche described development that has occurred along Kalifornsky Beach Road, including the road itself, as acting as a sort of dam that’s keeping water from flowing into the inlet and causing wetlands to become even more saturated with water.
“There are obviously complicated water flow dynamics to this,” he said. “It’s complicated hydrology. It’s not as simple as it seems and as we’ve interrupted that flow, the dynamics change with each new driveway, each new roadway, so it’s important that we understand it.”
He says it would be advantageous for the borough to have a better understanding of how water moves through the subdivisions in the area, and where additional drainage could help provide relief. Moving forward, he said the borough is encouraging residents in the area to speak up about what they think would work best to help mitigate flooding.
“Once we get an independent evaluation, we’ll involve those stakeholders on what it takes to manage a typical year — I can’t ever promise that we’re going to have a system that deals with Armageddon because that’s just not reality — but on a typical high water year,” he said.
‘This is our home’
As the borough and other groups brainstorm solutions, Kalifornsky Beach residents are — again — left cleaning up the mess.
Tiffany Straume stood amid a lawn full of furniture and deck materials on the afternoon of July 21. A mom of three, she said her family had to move out after the spring thaw in May. There was surprise and shock, she said, when the bottom level of her house, where her kids sleep, started flooding with sewage.
“It’s not livable right now,” she said of her home.
Straume’s husband works on the North Slope and is taking four weeks off of work to come down and help resolve the situation. She said her flood insurance will only cover part of the damage and that their future plans for the property include checking to see if their septic system has failed and possibly digging trenches around the property.
“This is our home,” she said.
Two blocks over, Ashkenasy said he feels “trapped” in a property where he has to ensure the water pumps are on before he flushes the toilet. He also is planning to replace his entire septic system, which he said flooded last year.
“There’s a problem in this neighborhood,” he said. “The flooding is bad and mine is not even as bad as some of those other folks.”
Ashkenasy doesn’t want to move out and push the problem off on to someone else, he said, but that he gets scared whenever he sees rain in the forecast.
In the meantime, he’s holding off on putting in any new carpet downstairs. The rolls of water damaged carpet outside — paid for 10 years ago with flood relief money — are destined for the landfill. Ashkenasy said he’s settling for concrete on the lower level.
“I’m actually looking into — it’s like a stain on the concrete and just (going) with area rugs,” he said. “ … The rugs in my garage I had pulled up last year because of flooding. I got rid of the carpet, put those in here, those went and so I haven’t even put those area rugs back in here. I’m walking around on concrete all the time.”