Ditch work may give some relief to erosion-plagued subdivision

A break in the weather has allowed Homer Public Works crews to do additional cleanup before winter takes hold of the southern Kenai Peninsula. That includes removing debris and opening ditches in the Baycrest Subdivision, specifically along Mount Augustine Drive, Rene Court and Judy Rebecca Court.

“We didn’t change any drainage patterns. We just deepened and cleaned out the ditches that existed,” said Carey Meyer, public works director.

Cleaning out clogged ditches and plugged culverts to direct the flow of water on that hillside might prove helpful to subdivision residents along Judy Rebecca Court. They have been struggling to anchor their homes in place after changes that occurred in the early spring, following installation of Enstar’s natural gas pipeline in a trench along Tanya Court, the street below Judy Rebecca Court. 

Trees are toppling above the area clear-cut for the pipeline trench. Piling beneath Scott and Carolyn VanZants’ home on property they purchased 15 years ago, and beneath Gee Denton’s cabin, bought in 1999, began tipping downhill and have had to be replaced. The VanZants’ windows have cracked. Steel piles have been installed by Techno MetalPost Alaska and anchored 14 feet into the hillside in an attempt to stop the downhill movement of the VanZant home. 

John Sims, manager of Enstar’s corporate communications and customer service, said, “it would be a stretch” to link Enstar’s actions to the increased erosion activity. Enstar placed the pipeline as directed by the city, according to Sims.

Meyer said Enstar’s work was done under a city permit and decisions to trench rather than bore, a less disruptive way to install pipe, were “a group decision” made by the city, Enstar and the Enstar contractor doing the work.

In any case, the city’s most recent effort to open ditches and allow water flow in a directed fashion is welcomed by both the VanZants and Denton, but seen as one step in a much bigger picture.

“We’re happy to see them working on things. We’re concerned, however, because it definitely sounds like there are different layers to this equation,” said Carolyn VanZant.

One of those “layers” may be a collector drain underneath the Sterling Highway at the intersection with Mount Augustine Drive that daylights onto the slope above the subdivision. 

Mike McCarthy, a local geologist voluntarily helping Judy Rebecca Court residents understand what is happening in their neighborhood, recently measured water coming through that drainage. Based on what he collected in an hour’s time, it was between 8,000 and 14,000 gallons of water a day. 

“That’s when it’s not raining,” said McCarthy. “That’s a lot of water.”

From downhill, where Mount Augustine Drive turns into Judy Rebecca Court, McCarthy said the course of the water coming out of the drain is evident.

“It actually cut a channel in the vegetation and you can follow it up and come right to the base of the slope where the outfall is,” said McCarthy.

Monitoring drainage on the Kenai Peninsula has been a concern for Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for more than 20 years “simply because of the topography and types of soil,” according to Jill Reese, the department’s media contact. Departmental projects are designed to replicate pre-project drainage. She was uncertain when the culvert was installed under the Sterling Highway that empties near Mount Augustine Drive.

“It may have been a time when we were having so many flooding issues, and would have been a maintenance thing, using the maintenance budget. They even brought in some FEMA money,” she said. “It would have been a maintenance type project to preserve what’s there and try to direct water in the correct manner. You know water. It just won’t stay where you want it to.”

The state’s area of responsibility is very clear, according to Reese.

“Doing as much as we can to preserve the road, that’s our duty. Preserve the road and keep people moving. That’s what we’re focusing on,” she said.

Through McCarthy, former Public Works employee Paul Hodgdon has become involved in trying to problem-solve the Baycrest Subdivision erosion problems because of his knowledge of the area. Hodgdon said water-related problems there and along Baycrest Hill are easy to spot.

 “Baycrest Hill, you come down there and there’s a mountain of water running on the right hand side. It runs so hard, if you’ve paid attention over 15-20 years or more, it erodes the shoulders,” he said. “The state fixes it every year just about.”

Within the subdivision, Hodgdon said, “It’s always been a wet area. The soils have always been marginal. The drainage that comes off Baycrest and runs down Augustine used to run all the way to the bluff. At some point they turned it with culverts to where all those houses are.”

Understanding culvert placement would be challenging, according to Meyer. 

“It’s possible with a little research we could determine when different improvements were made in front of homes. On the other hand, the farther you go back, the less paperwork there is, the less documenting who plopped a culvert and when,” said Meyer. 

The how’s and why’s are important, but for those living in the area, getting help is the top priority.

“When is someone who helped cause this going to help? We’re kind of hoping that someway, somehow they can all get on the same page and then figure out how to stop the harm,” said VanZant. “We’re just working class people who don’t have deep pockets where we can keep correcting what others have done. That’s the part that hurts the most.”

Hodgdon believes the city should take a step in that direction. Maybe do some soil analysis. Maybe get a historical perspective of the area.

“It’s not just a pothole on Pioneer Avenue that’s pissing everyone off. This is a whole neighborhood we’re talking about,” said Hodgdon. “It may have nothing to do with the pipeline, but so many things have happened in the last year and the only big thing is the gas line going in. The city should be the first one to step up to the plate and say, ‘Let’s find out,’ get it corrected and let people know what the problem is. … I’m not pointing a finger at anybody. I’m just saying this whole part of our community has developed a problem. Please help.’”   

Denton, who during the summer fortified the hill behind her house with a sandbag retaining wall and 80,000 pounds of rocks and hand-dug a ditch to divert water away from her foundation, has been advised another ditch, this one about 200 feet long, is needed. 

She’s also been told some test wells would help give an understanding of the soil and movement of water on her property.

“I don’t have any more money to pour out,” said Denton. “Where does this end?”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.