Yakutat blasts official inertia

Hubbard Glacier looms over town's future as residents look for some security

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

YAKUTAT - The small fishing town of Yakutat is frustrated by the glacial pace of emergency planning for a potentially devastating deluge from the Hubbard Glacier.

The glacier, the largest of its kind in North America, spurred record-breaking violent flood outbursts in 1986 and 2002, when it temporarily dammed Russell Fiord, stranded marine mammals and threatened Situk River fisheries.

Though the surging behemoth has been a topic for international headlines and more than 30 scientific studies, officials at the federal or state level have yet to create a plan for handling a flood emergency or diverting a flood, if possible.

"There is nothing in place. There is no protection," said Caroline Powell, chairwoman of the town's Hubbard Glacier Task Force, at a community meeting in Yakutat attended by staff representatives to Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Frank Murkowski on Saturday.

A severe glacial flood would blast through the Situk River, a world-class fishing river and the focal point of Yakutat's economy.

Glaciologists believe that the glacier will either close off Russell Fiord permanently or continue its cycle of damming and outburst floods for many years.

This year, the glacier started its springtime march toward its choke point in the fiord - Gilbert Point - a bit later than usual.

The glacier usually begins surging in March. This year, it began moving toward Gilbert Point only a few weeks ago.

Based on recent satellite imagery, the glacier now appears to be about 600 feet from Gilbert Point, said Patricia O'Connor, Yakutat district ranger for the Tongass National Forest.

Town leaders on Saturday expressed disgust about the pace of emergency planning.

"I'm tired of hearing study, study, study," said Mayor Tom Maloney. His idea of launching bunker bombs into the glacier to prevent a flood has been soundly rejected by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, he added.

Engineering a solution, however, is no easy task either. "There is no consensus (on) what to do," explained Chuck Cogar, with Congressman Young's office.

Like Yakutat residents, Young is also fed up with endless studying, Cogar said, "But we still don't know what will work."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of planning a possible floodwater diversion ditch, costing in excess of $20 million.

In theory, the ditch would divert floodwater from the newly created Russell Lake (the former Russell Fiord) that would otherwise submerge a vast area of the Situk River floodplain. The ditch would instead carry the floodwater to the east, into Seal Creek.

But no major study has commenced, and not all Yakutat residents are happy with the ditch idea. Many roll their eyes and call it "a crazy diversion."

"It is kind of strange that everybody is up in the air" on the ditch, yet no serious public discussion on emergency plans has begun, said Jan Piccard, a tribal official.

It will take 4 to 9 years to build the ditch, but in the meantime, "What's in place for the community?" Piccard asked.

Some residents, including influential Yakutat Native elders, feel it is wrong to tamper with an unpredictable force of nature.

Yakutat Tlingits call the Hubbard Glacier "Sit' tlein," or "The Big One."

"What's happening at the glacier is nature's thing," said Tlingit elder Lena Farkus. "They should leave it alone," she said.

Powell said there is no indication that the federal government will bail out Yakutat residents for the loss of income from Situk fisheries.

The leaders of the Hubbard Glacier Task Force are pushing federal agencies to build the ditch to Seal Creek and the Yakutat Assembly backed them up last year with a city resolution.

O'Connor emphasized that any diversion ditch would require an environmental impact statement, a study mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act.

"If we dig a ditch and the Hubbard never closes ... (the ditch) will just become moose browse," said Caroline Powell, chairwoman of the town's Hubbard Glacier Task Force.

The diverted floodwater would submerge a 46-acre Native allotment and could enter the nearby Ahmlkin River.

"We are in a tough position because we love both rivers," said Victoria Demmert, a Tlingit and former Yakutat mayor who also holds ownership in the threatened allotment along the Ahmlkin.

Demmert said protecting the Situk River is more important than anything else. "We can't lose that river," she said. "The Situk River feeds us."

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