Western Alaska breakup flooding inundates Kuskokwim River communities

May 10—Communities along the Lower Kuskokwim River flooded this week as a spring breakup ice jam backed up water to the highest levels reported in nearly 20 years, authorities said.

By Friday, water surrounded homes in low-lying areas of Bethel, which normally sees only minimal flooding. Most of Kwethluk was inundated and floodwaters had cut off access to the airport in Napaskiak.

The ice jam and snowmelt-related flooding prompted Gov. Mike Dunleavy to issue a state disaster declaration for communities along the Lower Kuskokwim on Friday that state officials say will help reimburse communities for emergency protective costs and open up financial assistance to individuals.

Water levels in Bethel this week reached their highest point since 2005, according to hydrologist Dave Streubel, with the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center.

People in that hub community generally gather at the edge of the river during spring breakup to watch the ice flow and enjoy the rising temperatures, said city clerk Lori Strickler. But this year, water had spilled over the sea wall by Friday and city officials asked everyone to avoid the riverfront for safety reasons.

About a foot of standing water was reported around a number of houses in two subdivisions Friday, she said. Several gravel and dirt roads were also washed out, cutting off access for some residents.

City officials on Friday were monitoring water and sewer lines for any damage from high water, Strickland said. Officials had not set up an emergency shelter, but they asked residents to check with friends and family if they felt they needed to leave their homes.

In Kwethluk, about 11 miles upriver from Bethel, water levels rose more quickly than they have in recent years and caught the village off guard, acting city manager Samuel Nicori said. By Friday, most of the village was inundated with water, he said. The sewage system was shut down due to flooding and the airstrip access road was underwater, according to a state update.

"We have limited mobility throughout the community," Nicori said. "So basically people with waders and canoes are going throughout the community."

A water pump damaged by ice earlier in the week was repaired by Friday, Nicori said. Bottled water was flown into the village, according to Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Tuluksak, about 26 miles upriver from Kwethluk, saw floodwater inundate its drinking water source pond earlier in the week and is also dealing with water issues, Bethel public radio station KYUK reported. Floodwaters there have receded.

In Napaskiak, downriver from Bethel by about 6 miles, floodwaters also cut off access to the airport, Streubel said.

Significant amounts of snow and ice on the river this year contributed to the higher waters and flooding, said Zidek.

The situation was worsened by an ice dam that formed near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, Streubel said.

"There's some in-place shore ice, ocean ice, so to speak," he said Friday. "So it's got to push its way far enough downriver into essentially the Kuskokwim River delta before the water level will drop."

Streubel said he was hopeful that would happen in the next few days.

The weather service issued a flood warning for the Kuskokwim River, including near Bethel and Kwethluk, until Monday.

Hydrologists and state officials are also monitoring flooding conditions in Interior Alaska along the Yukon River this week, Zidek said.