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Some Matanuska River landowners want government help — just not the kind they’re getting

Mike Pearson in July shared his frustration with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on a boarded-up building he owns along the Matanuska River near Sutton that’s at risk from erosion. (Zaz Hollander / Alaska Dispatch News)

SUTTON — Mike Pearson scrawled a note to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on a boarded-up building teetering along the Matanuska River's rapidly disappearing banks just outside Sutton.

"WHY NO HELP?? THANKS – MSB – 4 NOTHING. GOOD JOB GOV!!"

But as the ever-hungry Matanuska threatens to consume more homes, the kind of help residents want from the local government may not be the kind it can offer.

Officials say the borough proposed plenty of action over the years, such as new erosion control districts or buyouts. Many property owners chose not to participate.

Now, after seeing how the state manipulated the riverbed to protect highways, residents in the Matanuska's potential path in Butte and Sutton are pressing for fixes — they've seen the state build two rock walls last year to protect the Glenn and Old Glenn highways at a combined cost of more than $4.3 million.

Some of those residents favor dredging a new channel to redirect the muscular glacial waterway away from their homes. But officials say they probably don't have enough money to spend on the kind of in-river work that might succeed.

Instead borough, state and federal agencies are focusing mostly on plans to buy out riverfront residents at risk from erosion.

Study, argue … nothing?

For decades the Matanuska has devoured land and dozens of homes in Sutton and Butte. Pearson is one of several property owners along the river's Sutton stretch with homes in danger of falling in the river. A log cabin toppled in July.

Ed and Val Musial's green home, built in the 1950s when an expanse of trees and grass separated them from the river, now sits perched precariously above its rushing water.

Ed and Val Musial’s home sits right on the edge of the Matanuska River near Sutton along the Glenn Highway.  (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Terry Van Wyhe, a Copper River hog farmer, owns property next to Pearson. He uses his Matanuska River place to sell animals — it's roughly halfway between his farm and Anchorage. And he shares his neighbor's frustration with what he calls years of inaction from the borough.

Van Wyhe wants to see dredging in the river to move the channel away from his bank, at least until more can be done. He says he still pays borough property taxes on land that's now part of the river and wonders what the borough did with $2.5 million in state funds for river erosion control in Butte, Sutton and Talkeetna allocated by the Legislature in 2012.

"You're just like the federal government," he said of the borough. "You study, study, study, argue, argue, argue, and you never do anything."

Thanks, but no thanks

Current and former officials at local, state and federal agencies say, however, that the borough did quite a bit.

The $2.5 million didn't produce much when it was split into $1.5 million for the Butte area and $500,000 each for Sutton and Talkeetna, according to Jim Sykes, the Mat-Su Assembly member who represents Butte and Sutton.

"A half-million in flooding and erosion control doesn't get you very far," Sykes said.

A proposed erosion control district in Butte could have helped raise taxes and provide more legal authority to repair a failing rock wall between the river and the Old Glenn. But residents rejected it in 2013. Some already in an erosion control district balked at the idea of paying more taxes to cover other properties. Others said they built on bedrock and didn't need it.

Officials say it's difficult freeing up funds unless a disaster strikes.

The borough pushed for a state disaster declaration last year and got the governor to protect the Old Glenn Highway, Sykes said. A rock-filled trench there was supposed to be 500 feet long but the state later extended it, Sykes said. That served to protect not only the road but adjacent properties by armoring a vulnerable bank and steering the river away from a low-lying pond that could have threatened homes if breached.

Area residents watching the trench this summer, however, report the water is starting to undermine some rocks.

"It's so hard to get enough money to do something that is really going to be of long-term benefit," Sykes said.

Buyout strategy

The borough's broader strategy is to prevent an economic disaster by buying out properties. But over the years, borough officials say, a number of residents chose not to apply for buyout programs.

The borough is waiting to hear the fate of a Federal Emergency Management Act grant request for $4.7 million to buy five properties in Sutton and 11 in Butte, according to planner Taunnie Boothby.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is embarking on a study for an unusual program that would buy threatened properties and convert them to recreational areas.

The federal program comes with up to $10 million and requires the borough to foot about a third of the bill. The study won't be completed until 2019, when it will be reviewed for possible approval.

No laws

Right now, there aren't any laws or regulations regarding erosion that restrict building along the Matanuska, despite the river's history of eating land and homes.

For years it wasn't even clear just what areas were in jeopardy. More recently, mapping has revealed the areas at the highest risk of erosion: places where the river's current location swept past easily eroded banks made up of glacial silt.

Still, the borough has no immediate plans to develop land-use regulations reflecting erosion risk along the Matanuska, planners say.

The Matanuska River flows through the valley near Palmer along the Glenn Highway. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Modeling erosion — where the river's going to eat next — is very difficult, said Alex Strawn, the borough's development services manager.

Maybe the erosion will come in five years, maybe 500, Strawn said. Where do you draw the line for regulations to begin and end?

"I've heard interest in adopting some sort of erosion zone," he said, describing possible rules allowing only easily moved homes to be built. "But we're not there right now."

No easy fix

Spending money to "fix" the river is complicated at best.

Since the early 1970s, more than a dozen studies have examined solutions to the river's relentless march across land.

Overall, they show that installing rock armor along the banks, installing dikes or dredging out the river can't work alone — and could cost many millions of dollars.

The Matanuska drains a 2,100-square-mile basin in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains and carries an estimated 6 million tons of sand, silt and clay every year down a wide but shallow course.

Debris from a building lays twisted on a gravel bar in the Matanuska River near Sutton along the Glenn Highway on Wednesday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The river has meandered bank to bank over several decades, dumping silt until it fills one side and forces itself toward the other. Thirty years ago, the Matanuska's main channel hugged the Palmer side. Now it's over at Butte.

A 2014 report that accompanied a proposal to dredge the river at Sutton recommended at least six dikes with a channel dug to supply rock for the dredge and move water away from the bank for construction. The cost estimate was $6 million to $7 million, Sykes said.

But the report said dredging would fail if it wasn't accompanied by other measures.

The sheer amount of material moved by the Matanuska, even at relatively low flow periods, "could alter or fill such a channel within days," the report found.

Liability

A 2015 civil lawsuit on Montana Creek near Talkeetna showed how changing a river to help one private property owner can backfire legally for the borough.

Two property owners on the creek sued the borough over a dike built in concert with a neighbor to protect a road during 2012 floods. The next spring, the creek began flooding and eroding and "changed course such that portions of the property are now occupied by the creek," according to the complaint filed by Gary Bridges and Marilyn Dougher.

The borough ultimately paid a $38,000 settlement late last year.

Governments need to think twice about making changes to a glacial river, said Michelle Schuman, a Sutton-based ecologist who worked on the Matanuska River for the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I think I spent two or three years of my life talking about why the state and local governments do not get in there and start riprapping," Schuman said. "In my professional and personal opinion, the best thing you can do is avoid any kind of structural building in the floodplain of any river like the Matanuska River."

The roof from a building is caught on a gravel bar in the Matanuska River near Sutton. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

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