Erosion fuels Matanuska River's property assault

Posted: Monday, August 09, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Swollen with recent rains, the Matanuska River has launched another erosive assault on properties along its banks. But unlike previous years, when the river attacked properties downstream, this week the Matanuska is eroding property upstream near Sutton.

There are about 10 Sutton properties within a two-mile stretch in danger of being washed down the river. Property owners are scrambling to figure out what to do if the river grabs more of their land and washes it away.

All that remained of Forrest Blubaugh's home Friday afternoon was an empty shell on the brink of being washed down the river, joining his back porch, which dropped into the river Thursday.

The 78-year-old longtime resident at Mile 63 of the Glenn Highway was reportedly staying with a cousin Friday as neighbors loaded the last of his windows, doors, wood-burning stove and faded Jeep pickup for safekeeping nearby.

"Forrest asked me 'Why is God doing this to me?"' said Larry Davis, pastor of Grace Bible Church pastor. "I just told him that God has his reasons for allowing these things to happen."

Davis and others working to hold off the river on Friday expressed anger and frustration over the lack of attention they believe Mat-Su Borough and state officials are giving their crisis.

Mat-Su Borough officials sent out a statement Friday morning to reassure residents that officials are monitoring the erosion and coordinating efforts with the Sutton Community Council.

Davis and some river residents said they've seen the disaster coming for years after the state removed several finger-like dikes a decade ago after some complained about them being an eyesore.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Feller said the dikes aren't the issue.

"The course the river is going to take ... goes far beyond the dynamics of those dikes we built, as evidenced all the way up the Glenn Highway where the river is changing course all the time," Feller said.

Blubaugh's next-door neighbor Sonny "Red" Johnston, a father of five, built his two-story, four-bedroom home 17 years ago on property that seemed a safe distance from the river then. He said he has lost about 55 feet of land to the river in the past five years.

"It used to take 20 minutes to walk from the house to the edge of the river," he said, as he and his oldest son gathered up two-by-fours in case they lose the house and are forced to build a new one.

Farther south, in the Butte area, the Maud Road rock embankment also is eroding, according to borough officials.

In 2007, the borough lined up $500,000 in state and federal funds to buy out three properties near Sutton, but Davis and Johnston said the homes on those properties weren't in as much danger from the river as Blubaugh's and others closer to the bank.

The borough said a $1 million mapping study is nearly complete that pinpoints erosion risk areas along the river. The intent is to better inform property owners and buyers about the risks the river poses.

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