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Unusual glacial drain floods View Drive

Forest Service staff shed light on cause of high water

Posted: July 21, 2011 - 3:30pm
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Grounds supervisor Ray Roberts watches the Mendenhall River rise in the backyard of the Schaible House, which is owned by the University of Alaska Southeast, Thursday morning.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Grounds supervisor Ray Roberts watches the Mendenhall River rise in the backyard of the Schaible House, which is owned by the University of Alaska Southeast, Thursday morning.

Most residents vacated View Drive as waters rose around their homes and over the road.

This kind of water rise isn’t terribly unusual for View Drive residents, but the amount and the cause are.

Residents noticed waters rising late Wednesday night, but city staff and Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center staff believe the rising waters have stopped and appeared to be receding late Thursday afternoon.

Ron Marvin, Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center Director, said a lot of areas at the glacier park are flooded.

“We saw some fishes swimming among the trees,” he said. “We have been watching the water flow. The water was two inches from covering the bridge at Photo Point.”

The reason for the rapid increase in water flow was due to a Jökulhaup — essentially a glacier lake, Forest Service staff said.

“It’s an event where there’s a body of water on the surface of the glacier or within the body of the glacier and suddenly lets loose,” Marvin said.

That activity flooded most of the Nugget Falls trail and submerged most of the vegetation throughout the area. The Moraine Ecology Trail also was closed.

Arctic Terns nest in that vegetation, but luck was apparently on their side.

“The birds’ timing was impeccable because they had flocked their chicks and had just taken off a few days ago,” Marvin said. “They all managed to get away in the knick of time.”

He said it would be interesting to see what affect the flooding has on wildlife once the waters recede.

Marvin said if they looked through their telescopes this morning they saw turbulent water by the face of the glacier and increased water flow from the waterfalls also on the face of the glacier.

Marvin said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told them that in 2007 a glacier lake drained, but it wasn’t nearly as big. Marvin believes it has only occurred twice now that NOAA is aware of with the Mendenhall Glacier.

Tom Mattice, city emergency coordinator, the State Troopers and U.S. Forest Service flew above the Mendenhall Glacier shortly after noon Thursday to see if they could locate the source of the water flow and how much was left to drain.

Bill Yankee lives on Moraine Way, which connects View Drive to Mendenhall Loop Road. He has lived at his residence since 1974 when it was constructed and said View Drive floods “all the time.”

“What appears to be different is they built the road up over the years,” he said. “It’s not been this high, it has not been this close. Usually it’s a little later in the year.”

Hazel Reynolds, supervisor for the Valley street department, said the road has flooded before, but typically it’s in October with high tides and heavy rains and the road coverage usually only lasts a few hours.

The glacial colored waters breached the road around 9 a.m.

Some residents were more concerned than others. There are about a dozen homes along the drive and one family opted to stay. Alaska Electric Light and Power shut off power for those residences in the morning, after one of the transformers was half submerged.

Bill Cameron, a wastewater department operator, said they sealed off a pump hatch. He said if water were to go over it, that would fill the pump and end up backing wastewater and floodwater into homes.

Susana Hurtte, lives on View Drive with her family. She biked across the flooded road to retrieve items from her home. She said their trampoline, her sister’s playhouse and their electric greenhouse were completely submerged.

“From just this morning til 12:30 (p.m.) it’s already rose a ton,” she said. “Keep everybody whose houses are along the river in your prayers.”

She said there’s about six feet until water could reach the entrance of their house, and if water kept rising at the rate it did Thursday morning they’d be in trouble.

Both Hurtte and city staff didn’t think sandbagging would occur.

“We’ll probably just rough it and hope everyone has flood insurance,” Hurtte said.

She said they expected to camp out at someone’s place for the night and come back in the morning.

Reynolds had gone home-to-home encouraging residents to vacate. City Manger Rod Swope said they issued the recommendation not necessarily because they felt homes would fill with water, but because the road was flooded and they would be isolated and without power.

Reynolds said the Forest Service campground also flooded, with waters breaching that road at about 6:30 a.m. She said aside from the campground and View Drive, no other homes have been affected.

“There’s been some significant ice bergs floating down the river this morning,” she said.

One resident, who declined to be identified, said the last time water levels had been close to this height at View Drive was in 1996, although Thursday’s levels were about six inches lower. He said this is the first time the flood waters have been from a glacial burst.

“To me this is more panic than reality,” he said.

Swope said the city has kept track of everyone and knows who is staying. Juneau Police Department, public works staff and even himself have been driving through neighborhoods along Mendenhall River watching for more rising water.

The city also strongly advises against participating in recreational activities on Mendenhall River or lake.

“Somebody would be quite foolish to get on that river right now,” Swope said. He said they also strongly urge people to stay off trails that are adjacent to the river, with the fear that rising and more aggressive waters could weaken the banks.

“If the water does start receding we’ll be in good shape,” he said.

Between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Thursday, city staff and Marvin noticed that water levels appeared to be slowly dropping. Marvin said the photo point bridge water level had dropped about an inch.

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