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Government-weary Matanuska River landowners warm to federal buyout

Zaz Hollander
Bruce Derstine has been cited by Mat-Su Borough officials for several projects on his property designed to keep floodwaters away from his home and, in this case, stem erosion of more of his property by the Matanuska River.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Pat Huddleson has been an organizer for residents living along the Matanuska River from mile 13 to mile 15 who have dealt with flooding and erosion issues through the years. Many of them are considering a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded buyout offer. While their home sits several hundred wooded yards from the river, flooding is an annual concern. Huddleson and her husband Dan in the last 10 years have built a new home between the river and the Old Glenn Highway, and started a business along the highway offering vehicle and trailer restoration and spray-on linings. They do not think the buyout will allow them to re-locate to equivalent roadside property elsewhere for their business.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Sandbags remain in place outside the home of Dale Peterson as a precaution against the next threat of flooding from the Matanuska River.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Bruce Derstine strolls past bags of gravel positioned to hold back Matanuska River floodwaters on Tuesday, August 5, 2014, at his home between Butte and Palmer. Derstine has been cited by Mat-Su Borough officials for several projects on his property designed to keep floodwaters away from his house. Flooding last winter filled the drainage ditch in the foreground with silt.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Dan Huddleson, left, and his wife Pat have a home they built less than 10 years ago that they now have to consider selling in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded buyout. The Matanuska River flows beyond the trees to the left several hundred yards away. While erosion is an ongoing problem but not yet an immediate danger, the last major flood brought water up to their home, which stayed dry.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Dale Peterson figures he probably has to move from his log home if officials are unwilling to renew efforts to hold back the Matanuska River. Sandbags remain in place around his home and in reserve in a shed pending the next threat of flooding.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Pat Huddleson now keeps many of her pantry items in boxes for easy removal in case of evacuation due to Matanuska River flooding.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Bruce Derstine has been cited by Mat-Su Borough officials for several projects on his property designed to keep floodwaters away from his home.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
The Matanuska River continues to eat away at shoreline on Tuesday, August 5, 2014, between Butte and Palmer.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Huge bags of gravel line one side of a ditch to protect a building owned by Dan and Pat Huddleson from flooding on Tuesday, August 5, 2014, near their home between Butte and Palmer.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Bruce Derstine has been cited by Mat-Su Borough officials for this levee and other projects on his property designed to keep floodwaters away from his home.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Dale Peterson shows where the Matanuska River has carved a half-circle out of shoreline near Maud Road on Tuesday, August 5, 2014, not far from the Old Glenn Highway between Butte and Palmer.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

BUTTE -- Residents along the Matanuska River fought the bank-eating glacial waterway for decades, but now some property owners are ready to let the water take their land for good.

At least 15 of 20 landowners living from Mile 13 to Mile 15 of the Old Glenn Highway told the Matanuska-Susitna Borough last month they’re open to a voluntary federal buyout.

But they're not happy life on the river got to this point. 

Rather, many say they're giving up out of frustration with the borough’s failure to do anything to protect their property from future flooding and erosion.

“I don’t understand why would people allow land to be devoured,” said Pat Huddleson, the unofficial leader of local property owners. “You don’t get land back.”

The river, a braided channel that periodically meanders across its broad plain, banked sharply to the east in the mid-1980s, toward Butte and away from Palmer. About a dozen homes on the Matanuska along the Old Glenn flooded or fell in the river. Near-record floods in September 2012 swamped riverfront properties and flooded the Old Glenn.  

Farther north, a half-dozen homes in Sutton fell into the river or remain threatened, including one with about 5 feet of land to spare. 

One problem in the Butte is a riverfront revetment -- residents call it a dike -- built in the mid-1980s by the state but never maintained, Huddleson said. “Nobody’s touched that dike since the day it was built.”

Changing course

Borough officials acknowledge that the river washed out about a third of that dike, but say they lack the authority to protect private property because the Mat-Su is a second-class borough. There's also little appetite among government officials for dredging the river into a central channel and away from homes on its banks. 

Instead, Mat-Su officials are encouraging landowners to sign on to the buyout. The borough's emergency manager estimates it could cost $7 million to buy houses and property, then remove or demolish them.  

There are three pools of money the borough can access: Flood Mitigation Assistance or Hazard Mitigation Grant programs available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or a Housing and Urban Development program.

The borough Assembly set aside about $269,000 to hire a grant writer and start appraisal work on the federal buyouts. Time is short: One grant deadline is Oct. 1, and the two others run through next spring.

Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Sykes, who represents the Butte, says he understands the deep frustration and anger coming from the Matanuska these days. He’s found documents showing the state disavowing maintenance on the revetment that runs from Ye Olde River Road to Maud Road and the borough calling the state the responsible agency. 

The borough also failed Matanuska River residents by not discouraging building in the floodplain, Sykes said.

"When you've got a wild river like this, it's always going to be a problem, but we're trying to do something for these folks," he said. 

Plug the Hole

Even if a federal buyout comes through, it won’t start until a year from now. Landowners wanted a short-term solution to water worries. They say they asked the borough and got no response. 

So they did it themselves, with a crowd-sourced -- and properly permitted -- dike repair program dubbed "Plug the Hole" that brought in more than $8,000 and eased flood worries, at least for now.

A 150-foot line of oversized white sandbags filled with river rock runs next to the water, designed to keep the melt-swollen river from pouring into the area around Rival Park Motocross track, into a pond next door, and from there onto adjacent properties.

The fix was born of frustration, said Dale Peterson, a Ye Olde River Road resident.

“They were taking care of business because the borough had sat on their butts for two years,” Peterson said. 

'Doing my own thing'

Frustration with borough inaction prompted at least one resident to take matters into his own hands, in defiance of stop-work orders.

Bruce Derstine, a contractor who built the log home where he lives along the Old Glenn, installed a low retaining wall and berm along his driveway, positioned a row of fill-loaded, supersized sandbags, and dug out a river-routing trench -- all to deflect water away from his house and prevent a repeat of the flooding that plagued his property over the winter, when an ice dam sent river water into his first floor.

“I'm doing my own thing to protect my own place," Derstine said, estimating he's already lost 3 or 4 acres of the 11 he bought in 1999 along the Matanuska. 

But the borough's code compliance officer doesn’t see it that way. Pamela Ness issued three rounds of citations to Derstine from April through late July. A judge convicted him on the first round at a July trial but handed down the minimum, $150 fine for both counts. The other citations are still moving through the system. 

Ness says Derstine's flood-control measures flooded the land next door, where a produce grower had 2 feet of water earlier this year. The officer said Derstine's use of an undersized culvert posed problems for a southern neighbor as well.

Derstine continued to install large sandbags and place fill in July in violation of enforcement orders issued in April, according to the citations filed at Palmer’s courthouse.

Ness said she wants him to get a flood-prevention permit and hire an engineer to certify any work done won't adversely affect neighbors or divert the river's natural flow. 

"Personally, I think he's spent as much on material as it would cost for an engineer," she said. 

Life on the river

Given the pervasive hold-back-the-river atmosphere, there's a bizarre subculture along the river these days, a combination of laid-back waterfront living and the constant threat of natural disaster, like Margaritaville meets post-Katrina New Orleans.

Clint Nelson moved to Ye Olde River Road as a fifth-grader. He's 47 now. Two of his children were born on the land. Leaving would be hard, Nelson said. But he's just 150 to 200 feet from the river now. There are other places in the Valley to live. 

"If nobody's going to fix the dikes, I want the buyout to happen," he said. 

Huddleson keeps a motor home ready to go on the off chance rising waters prompt an evacuation.

She says she doesn’t even like to leave the house to go shopping.

“I’m afraid if I leave, I come back there’ll be nothing to come home to,”  the gravelly voiced ​Huddleson said. “It is bad, and it gets to you.”

But like several other landowners interviewed last week along the river, she remains skeptical that she and her husband, Dan, will get treated fairly in a buyout. She already knows any federal money won't cover the body shop they operate next to their small, neat home just off the Old Glenn. They'll probably get "low-balled" on an appraisal, she said. They're waiting to see what happens next. 

"We want to participate, but I'm undecided," Huddleson said.

Contact Zaz Hollander at