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Mat-Su seeks Matanuska dredging as Sutton home teeters on the brink

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 31, 2014

SUTTON -- Ed and Val Musial built their house nearly a quarter mile from the Matanuska River in 1959.

Today, just six feet of sidewalk and sod separate the Musials' back door from the riverbank.

A once-grassy backyard leading to trees ends in an abrupt bluff over roiling gray water. Chunks of land litter the cobbles below. The septic tank fell in last summer.

The view from a window over the kitchen sink is all moving water.

"We built this thing ourselves, every damn bit of it," said 87-year-old Val Musial. "And it was hard work. We lived in the basement for 17 years because Ed doesn't believe in debt."

At 91, Ed Musial is clear-headed and mobile. He still mows the front lawn to golf-course precision.

He's long blamed a series of erosion-control dikes the state installed 30 years ago for bringing the Matanuska to his door.

"There was nothing wrong with the river to start with," Musial said.

Now the couple is banking on a brash Mat-Su Borough proposal to move the Matanuska away from their land by installing a dike to reroute the water and dredging a channel toward the far side to keep it there.

Moving the river

Proposals for the borough project call for a 200- to 300-foot dike angling into the river, and a 100-foot-wide channel maybe 1,000 feet long and 7 to 10 feet deep angling off the dike, according to contractor Jim Psenak, who owns a Palmer construction company. A Fairbanks hydrologist is working on a preliminary design for the project.

Permits to do the work are far from assured, borough officials say, and there may not be enough money even if it gets approved.

The project isn't specifically intended to save the Musial place -- the borough doesn't have authority to protect private property -- but would safeguard two parcels nearby the borough acquired after buying out erosion-weary residents, said assistant borough manager George Hays.

Several of the couple's neighbors on shrinking acreage just outside Sutton sandwiched between the hungry river and the Glenn Highway took buyouts and left.

The Musials say they're staying, though the river has taken 2 1/4 acres of the more than 6 1/2 they patented just after statehood.

"No!" Val Musial said about the possibility of taking a buyout. "Where are two old people going to go?"

Dredging dilemma

Residents in erosion- and flood-prone Butte neighborhoods along the Matanuska have been pushing for dredging for years without luck.

Permitting agencies scrutinize any dredging proposal closely, especially in a wild, glacial river like the Matanuska that carries huge loads of sediment and tends to swing back and forth from decade to decade across a mile-wide braided plain.

Officials tend to worry about risks to salmon during dredging, as well the cost of annual channel maintenance and any potentially negative effects that tinkering with one stretch of river might have on downriver properties.

Hays said the project needs permits from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"The permit process is very long," he said. "That's what the long pole in the tent here is."

A U.S. Corps of Engineers official in Anchorage said the agency has 120 days or fewer from the day they get a complete application to make a decision.

Psenak said he submitted applications to Fish and Game and the Corps of Engineers in mid-July but the Corps wanted more information about the availability of buyouts and value of nearby properties. He expected new applications to get to the agencies Tuesday, when the permitting clock should start ticking.

Hays said he didn't think the federal permit process would finish in time to do the work this year during the low-water period from October until early December. Psenak was more optimistic, saying he hoped to get a sense of direction from the Corps by early October and start work after that.

Blame game

Ed Musial has spent decades making his case that the river flowed far from his property until the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities built seven spur dikes and a guide bank in the mid-1980s, a project he opposed.

The dikes failed, Musial says, and nobody took responsibility to fix them or protect his place. He has documents showing the Mat-Su Borough agreed to maintain the project in 1984, but no repairs were done when the dikes began deteriorating three years later.

But he's also says the state has a share of the blame, pointing to a hand-written transcript of a phone conversation in which a state official agreed to waive warranties on the dike if a contractor removed problematic culverts.

The office of Gov. Sean Parnell last year dismissed any contention that the memo "has any influence or sway on the assumption of ownership on the project," according to a letter from Angela Hull, the governor's constituent relations specialist.

Consultant Psenak says the back-and-forth Musial uncovered typifies the government's hands-off attitude about work in the river including dredging.

"No agency wants to put their stamp on anything," he said. "If (dredging) doesn't work, it doesn't work but it's not going to do anything if you don't do it now. It's just going to get worse."

River nears highway

The borough has $500,000 to spend on the dike and dredging project, Hays said. It might not be enough.

The money comes out of $2.5 million appropriated last year by the Legislature at state Rep. Bill Stoltze's request. The borough is spending part of the money to fix a dike at a Butte subdivision and on Susitna Valley roads and bridges damaged by 2012 floods.

The original dike and dredging proposal was expected to cost $650,000 to $950,000, so it had to be scaled back, Psenak said.

He said that even if the dike and dredging do happen, all the government agencies with a stake in riverfront property still need to sit down and chart a course for the future.

The river isn't going to stop taking property and homes, but erosion also threatens the Glenn Highway, he said.

Psenak recently measured 90 feet between the river bank near the Musials and the white line along the highway.

"And 90 feet can go real quickly," he said.

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