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Matanuska River keeps swallowing houses

Michelle Theriault Boots
Wreckage of a cabin is partially submerged in the Matanuska River near the Butte on Wednesday, August 29, 2012. Christopher Wenner and his wife, Daina Mirsch-Wenner, own the house, which went into the river after erosion peeled away some of his land. They were using it as a rental property and live in a house behind it that they fear will soon be in the river too.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Dan and Pat Huddleson stand on a dike along the Matanuska River in the Butte. A cabin is partially submerged in the river nearby. The Huddlesons say a lack of maintenance on the dike over the last 25 years means their property is threatened by the river erosion.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

THE BUTTE -- When Pat Huddleson climbs on the levee meant to protect her neighborhood from the destructive moods of the Matanuska River, she sees a house up to its eaves in the water, sandwiched between gravel bars.

The house belongs to her neighbor, Chris Wenner. Until mid-August it sat a few miles up the Old Glenn Highway on a lot edged by birch trees and a lawn.

Then erosion gnawed away at the banks enough to pull it into the water, making it the latest entry in a decades-long list of buildings to the east and south of Palmer being taken by the river. Another house on the property looks poised to fall in soon.

Huddleson thinks her own property, at Mile 14, may well be covered in water as soon as next year. "Or gone," she said.

SLOW-MOTION DISASTER

Homes along the scenic but unpredictable Matanuska River have been vulnerable to flooding and erosion for as long as people have been building them.

But with another dramatic example of the river's power submerged in the water, Huddleson and some of her neighbors are again asking why a levee built in the 1980s to protect homes was never maintained. Huddleson said she and her neighbors, about 10 of whom stand directly in the path of the river, are tired of watching a slow-motion disaster they think the borough, state or federal government should be doing something about.

The only way to prevent more homes from going in, they say, is to fix the levee.

But who built it in the first place?

The answer, buried under decades and pre-computer paper files, is the state Department of Transportation, said spokeswoman Meadow Bailey.

The project was built in the 1980s with state money. It's not clear exactly when, but a Matanuska-Susitna Borough spokeswoman said records showed 1985, and the funds may have been connected to an emergency grant spurred by erosion problems.

There is no record that a maintenance agreement was part of the project, said Bailey. It's not clear why. Such plans weren't always standard at the time but are today, she said.

"Today we would never build a project without a maintenance agreement," she said.

Without regular upkeep, the embankment has withered from 20 feet wide to about five, said Dan Huddleson. At one time you could drive a pickup on it, he said

"We didn't build this close to the river," said Pat Huddleson, wearing her "Proud to Be Valley Trash" T-shirt. "We had acreage."

'PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK'

Chris Wenner, too, thought he had acreage.

Back in Minnesota, he and his wife, Daina Mirsch-Wenner, dreamed of an Alaskan life: a little house on a river with a view of the mountains and room to shoot and snowmachine.

For a time they found it in a modest brown house with big windows and a rhubarb patch out front just off the Old Glenn Highway.

When they bought the house 3 1/2 years ago they realized they were vulnerable to flooding, Wenner says. One condition of their mortgage was that they had to get flood insurance. But there was plenty of land around the house at the time, he said.

In mid-August the rental cabin on their property fell in to the river. They moved out of the main house on the property in a hurry.

The state and borough say they have no plans to fish the structure out.

Though the state owns the river itself, items that fall in to it are still the legal responsibility of the property owner, said Wynn Menefee of the state Department of Natural Resources.

It will probably break apart and disintegrate naturally, Menefee said. Now the Wenners watch as the river creeps ever closer to their house.

Chris Wenner said he would have moved the house off the property before it fell in if he'd had somewhere to move it to. But that would mean buying more land and installing a septic tank.

"We're living paycheck to paycheck just like everybody else," he said.

Once it became clear that the water was coming too close, he would have burned the rental house down if he could have, he said. But insurance won't allow that.

"If you do anything to the home you aren't going to be covered," he said.

He and his wife are living temporarily in a duplex where he gets free rent in exchange for remodeling work.

"We're in a bad place," said Wenner, who owns his own home remodeling business. "All I can say is we need help, and I normally don't ask for that."

The borough has no money in its budget to repair or rebuild the levee, according to Frankie Barker, an environmental planner with the borough. It also has no authority to do so, she said, because the area is not in a flood and erosion control service district, she said.

Meanwhile, the Huddlesons said, birch trees and dirt spill in to the river by the hour.

She has been filling her Facebook page with pictures of debris washed down the river and all-caps open pleas for a solution to the levee problem.

Chris Wenner is waiting to be able to make an insurance claim on the main house on his property. The river is now close enough that you could toss a dinner plate from the house into the water. The borough and state say there's nothing for them to do but let it fall in.

"I go down there every day and watch my dreams go down the river," Wenner said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Audio: Butte residents speak up
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News