FEMA rejects buyout for owners of disappearing property along Matanuska River

WASILLA — There will be no multimillion-dollar federal buyout to move property owners away from the destructive path of the Matanuska River.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week it's not funding a $3.5 million buyout grant request from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The borough hoped to buy out nearly 20 property owners: four or five in Sutton and about a dozen along a section of river in Butte that's threatening property and homes along the Old Glenn Highway, according to Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Sykes.

A regional FEMA spokesman in Seattle said the Matanuska buyout was one of 486 applications worth a total of $240 million that came in — all competing for a national prehazard mitigation program with only $90 million available for grants.

Several Alaska projects did get identified for further review, including a $4 million fuel terminal relocation at the Port of Anchorage for "seismic resilience," but the Matanuska projects weren't selected.

"It's not that it's not a good project or an eligible project," FEMA spokesman Ryan Ike said. "It means in a national competition with the rest of those submitted, it didn't rise to the level."

The Matanuska is a powerful, glacier-fed braided waterway that snakes back and forth between Palmer and Butte, eroding its banks even when the river isn't at flood stage. Numerous homes in Butte and Sutton have fallen into the water over the decades. Many property owners bought and built when the river was far enough away to be out of sight.

The FEMA decision came about a week after Gov. Bill Walker declared a disaster as the river's Butte section came within 120 feet of the Old Glenn Highway and utilities.

The declaration allowed the state to access more than $3 million in emergency funds.

Now the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is building a $2 million rock wall to protect the highway and utilities — and property, indirectly — from the river.

Crews are about halfway through with a 1,100-foot-long trench filled with huge boulders designed to hold back the river between Mile 13 and 15 of the Old Glenn. The river got close enough late last week that crews dropped work in one spot and rushed to protect another section threatened by erosion with 2,500 tons of rock placed next to the river.

Meanwhile, a 30-year-old dike the borough stopped maintaining is largely gone and continues to degrade, locals say.

Before the state began work on the rock wall and trench, residents watching the river devour the loose bank took matters into their own hands. A group cut down trees and lashed them to the bank to stave off erosion, with apparent success.

Their concern was — and is — that the river's powerful main channel could sweep into a low-lying pond in an old gravel pit and wash over dozens of properties, if not more.

A 2010 borough plan to address Matanuska River erosion suggests identifying high-risk areas and making that information available to the public. Other suggestions include buyouts to put erosion-prone land in public hands, but to also erect protection structures to safeguard property.

Scott Easler, who owns land between the Matanuska and the Old Glenn near Ye Olde River Road, said the 2010 plan has been largely ignored.

"There will always be those in greater immediate need and rightly those relief monies should go to them," Easler wrote in a message Wednesday. "Meanwhile in Alaska … nothing's changed .. we are left to fend for ourselves."

The FEMA decision means the borough is left scrambling to find different funding sources to buy out property owners, for decades the top recommendation to deal with land loss along the highly erosive Matanuska, according to Sykes, who represents Butte.

"Getting people out of harm's way is the cheapest solution," he said.

The borough could tap a state hazard mitigation grant program to pay for some Matanuska buyouts, according to Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. But that funding source would provide far less money, Zidek said.

The borough still needs to apply for grants by a mid-October deadline, then pass muster with FEMA and compete with other Alaska projects looking for money, he said.

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey said he expects the borough will apply for the grant.

FEMA's buyout rejection marks the borough's third attempt since 2012 to get the money, Moosey said. That cost a little more than $163,000.

The money came out of a $2.5 million legislative appropriation secured that year by then Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

The borough had planned to use a little over $1 million out of that money to match the FEMA buyout funds, Sykes said.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at