Yakutat's Hubbard Glacier threatens prime tourist draw

Officials fear current surge may connect the glacier with Gilbert Point and turn Russell Fiord into a permanent lake

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2004

YAKUTAT - Hubbard Glacier is surging forward by up to 12 feet a day and threatening to choke a fiord and flood the world-renowned steelhead stream on which this town depends.

The danger to the Situk River is considered potentially more devastating and lasting than the last two times the glacier acted up, in 1986 and 2002.

Gov. Frank Murkowski visited Yakutat Tuesday to hear concerns and options presented by the Hubbard Glacier Task Force and to fly over the advancing ice, said Mike Nizich, the governor's assistant chief of staff. Residents are so concerned that one option is a diversion trench away from the river, costing up to $1 million.

Yakutat resident Byron Mallott said the town would suffer if the fiord does remain walled off and flood the Situk and tributaries.

"The Situk River, which is a world-class both commercial- and sport-fishing river, would be in jeopardy," Mallott said. "As would a number of smaller feeder streams that are critical to both the commercial and the sport fishing systems here. Local folks are very apprehensive about what this means."

The town's attraction is on display this week with dozens of steelhead anglers from as far away as Europe.

A moraine at the edge of the glacier closed off Russell Fiord in 1986 and again in 2002, reopening both times. Officials fear this time the glacier may connect with Gilbert Point and turn the fiord into a permanent lake.

Yakutat District Ranger Tricia O'Connor said that as of April 22, Hubbard Glacier was about 640 feet off of Gilbert Point at the northwest edge of Russell Fiord and could possibly connect by the end of June. She said scientists' estimates for the start of flooding range from four months to a year. If it damages spawning grounds in the river and tributaries, it could cost Yakutat business.

"There would be pretty significant effects to the current fishery, there's no doubt about that," O'Connor said. "The community has estimated that somewhere from 80 to 90 percent of their economy comes from that river."

The Situk has one of the largest wild steelhead stocks in the world and the largest documented steelhead population in Alaska, with an annual run of about 6,000 to 9,000 fish returning each year. The river also is a salmon-spawning ground contributing to subsistence and commercial fisheries.

"The fear from the community is that if it does overflow on the south end of Russell Fiord it will impact the Situk River, their big economic engine of the community," Nizich said. "So the proposal from the Hubbard Glacier Task Force is to put in a diversion trench."

Nizich said an area has been mapped out and there is a plan under consideration to reroute the water without having any effect on the Situk itself.

"That's what the governor went over to listen to, to find out the exact lay of the land and the ownership of the property," Nizich said.

Hubbard Glacier comes out of Glacier Bay National Park and becomes Forest Service property at Gilbert Point. The projected flood area is mostly Forest Service property. Contractors and the Hubbard Glacier Task Force have been surveying the area to figure out the best possible area to divert the water if needed.

Nizich said there have been no discussions on who would ultimately fund the diversion trench.

"They claim it's fairly feasible," Nizich said.

O'Connor said it is uncertain what will happen to Hubbard Glacier and Russell Fiord in the coming months so they are discussing options now.

"There's a whole lot of different scenarios that could happen and it's really difficult for us to predict which will happen the next time," she said. "In my career I've never dealt with something of this magnitude and with this uncertainty."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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