ANCHORAGE - A lake dammed by Skilak Glacier broke free this month and has raised water levels in the lower Kenai River, threatening low-lying homes.
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The river started rising gradually Jan. 16, said National Weather Service hydrologist Ben Balk said. It was expected to crest over the weekend.
The lake behind Skilak Glacier is fed by rain and snow. Water from the lake tunnels under the ice and raises downstream water levels every two or three years, usually with subtle results, Balk said.
This year, it's happening when the river is iced over. The rising water has built ice jams that back up water. On Friday afternoon, a jam was developing upstream of the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna.
"When this jam does finally release, the backwater will come rushing down," Balk said.
On Friday, a downstream bend known as Big Eddy flooded, pouring a few inches of water down roads in a Soldotna neighborhood.
"If it jams again by the bridge or Big Eddy, there could be significant flooding," he said.
The river has risen about 3.5 feet this month. Balk said he expected a rise of about 6 inches before the water dropped. Behind jams, the water had gained up to 8 feet in elevation.
Damage by Friday had been limited to homeowners' boat docks and other riverside property as well as trees ripped out by the ice. Officials were unaware of flooded homes.
Kenai Peninsula Borough crews plowed down snow banks that had channeled water through streets in the Big Eddy area. Two segments of road remained closed and some camper trailers were swamped.
The river's water level likely will to drop rapidly after it peaks this weekend, Balk said.