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Funds for Matanuska River buyouts all dried up

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2008

SUTTON -- Two years ago, Mike Pearson and his wife opted against applying for a government program to buy at-risk homes along the land-hungry Matanuska River.

At the time, the Matanuska wasn't that close, and other homeowners nearly teetering over the water needed the money more. Plus, Pearson said, local officials guaranteed more funds for so-called buyouts in the future.

Now the glacial river that's caused decades of trouble in Sutton and the Butte is within a couple hundred feet of the Pearsons' back door, and they are ready for a buyout.

They may be out of luck.

"I've heard there's nothing available, and basically you're on your own," said Pearson, calling on a minus-20 day from the North Slope, where he drives trucks.

The last round of buyout funding came via a $594,000 earmark to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. As part of a pilot project, the federal agency passed the money to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which bought three Sutton homes and demolished them.

But there are no earmarks in the pipeline now, said state conservationist Robert Jones.

That despite the fact borough officials for several years have made it clear that strategies for dealing with Matanuska River erosion are evolving from in-river fixes like dikes to more hands-off solutions like buyouts or zoning.

So where's the buyout money?

"Well, that probably would be better answered by our congressional delegation," Jones answered. "The whole emphasis on earmarks ... is being reduced I guess across the country."

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the source of past earmarks for river-related projects, recently lost his seat to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

An aide to Congressman Don Young said earmarks generally don't happen without requests from the community, which in this case most likely would be the borough.

"You don't just create requests out of thin air," chief of staff Mike Anderson said.

Borough planner Frankie Barker said in a voice mail that borough officials did request additional funds to continue the pilot project but were unsuccessful.


At least one resident, however, is dead set against a buyout, funds or no funds.

At 86, Ed Musial has lived near the river since 1952. For years, he and his wife looked out their big picture window to a forested island that buffered their land from the main channel.

The river ate the island and now is driving straight toward his property.

Initially, Musial told neighbors to leave the river alone. Now, he says, the only way to fix things is to dig a channel in the middle of the river to redirect the flow.

"The buyout was all wrong," he said. "That's $600,000 shoulda went to fix the river."

He and Pearson say the current situation in Sutton is man-made.

Both blame faulty dikes built by the borough and state Department of Transportation in the 1980s to stem erosion-related flooding. Both men say the dikes and associated construction directed water toward homes before the structures failed altogether.

Rick Feller, a transportation spokesman, said the dikes did indeed fail, though upkeep was the borough's responsibility. Feller also said, however, that there's no way a handful of failed dikes are responsible for the actions of such a notoriously wild river.

"That project happened a long time ago and since that time, the river has moved where it's going to move," he said.


The Matanuska, like most glacial rivers, is doing what it's done for centuries: muscling back and forth in a sinuous path that can split randomly into new braids and generally make for an unpredictable neighbor.

For years, the Butte garnered much of the attention for erosion problems. In 2005, the Matanuska stole hundreds of feet of property from neighborhoods near Bodenburg Loop Road in one summer's gulp. Landowners watching their backyards shrink could still see pipes poking out of the water from an older home consumed by the river altogether.

Residents of Circle View Estates subdivision formed a flood and erosion control district in the 1990s. Now they pay local taxes to help fund protective measures, including maintenance on dikes built to protect their homes.

But in Sutton, where the river several years ago began gnawing away at ground between Kings River and Granite Creek, riverfront residents say local taxes are high enough and they have no interest in forming a district.

A 2004 NRCS study found buyouts to be the cheapest method of dealing with erosion when compared to gravel removal, riprap or dikes. Then again, not everyone wants to be bought out, the study acknowledges.

Pearson, who bought his home more than 30 years ago, before the river shifted toward his property, gets that. But he also thinks buying out people in Sutton who are interested would be good government.

"It would be cheaper than trying to redike and rechannel all of this," he said. "Five or six houses -- that would be nothing, hardly."

Find Zaz Hollander online at or call 352-6711.