Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kuskokwim River breakup floods roads, impacts drinking water for some communities

A man wears waders as he walks down a flooded Sixth Avenue in Bethel on May 9, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan
A man wears waders as he walks down a flooded Sixth Avenue in Bethel on May 9, 2024.

Ice jams from breakup on the Kuskokwim River are causing high water to inundate many lower river communities.

As of Thursday, there had not been any reported flooding impacts to structures like homes or businesses, but some roads are covered with water and it’s affected at least two villages’ drinking water.

KYUK’s Sage Smiley got an update from the National Weather Service’s river observers Thursday afternoon and joined Alaska News Nightly host Casey Grove from Bethel.

Casey Grove: Sage, what are the most serious concerns right now?

Sage Smiley: Well, much of the Lower Kuskokwim is inundated along the banks of the river itself, as well as along the tributaries and well into the tundra. Officials with the National Weather Service and Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center’s River Watch program say they believe the tundra flooding is actually making the regional flooding more widespread and sort of perpetuating and amplifying the effect of the river, floating oxbow lake ice and acting like a sponge that takes on and then keeps releasing water.

So the biggest place to look at is definitely Kwethluk. They’ve got the biggest impacts of anywhere so far this breakup season, and only one road in the whole village isn’t underwater. Here’s what Weather Service hydrologist Johnse Ostman said about it:

Johnse Ostman: Almost all of their roads are flooded. Their school is an island, which is their evacuation point. The village has now been cut off from the airstrip because of water over the roads. There’s a lot of water in the tundra, and it extends pretty far to the east. The upstream channel from the Kuskokwim that runs into the Kwethluk is carrying stranded ice, pack ice. It’s almost being siphoned up into the Kwethluk River. And so we’re seeing ice jams, Akiak ice, packing up into the Kwethluk River. We’re also seeing water levels rise in the tundra, just generally across the whole region. And so we’re now starting to float a lot of that oxbow ice and bring that oxbow lake down in and around the village.

SS: Further down the river Napaskiak is also somewhere to be looking at. They’re cut off from their airport except for by boat and canoe. They’re reporting board road damage. Their dump is flooded, and the water is pretty close to their well, their drinking water well. They also have water still coming in from the river and from the slough behind the community, which is making it hard to access the school, which is their emergency evacuation point. Right across the river from Napaskiak in Oscarville it’s much of the same situation. They’re pretty much inundated with water. No roads are out of the water and both Napaskiak and Oscarville residents say that they are seeing higher water levels than they did during Typhoon Merbok.

CG: Oh wow. For those communities that are dealing with drinking water issues, how serious is that?

SS: So according to the state Emergency Operations Center, moving ice took out the water plant intake pipe in Kwethluk up the river earlier this week, and they’re still on a water alert, although the water plant is back online. Further up the river even more Tuluksak’s drinking water source pond was inundated earlier this week in the flooding. The floods are receding and the area’s drying out, but they’re still dealing with water issues, and their dump is still flooded as well. It’s a situation that the state Emergency Operations Center is monitoring closely, as drinking water is one of the most important things for communities to have.

CG: So Sage, what’s happening there closer to you in Bethel?

SS: Bethel is flooding. It’s the highest recorded water at the Bethel gauge since 2005, according to the National Weather Service, and I’ve been out and about in town a couple different times today. The roads are covered in water, kind of on the north part of town. I saw drone footage at that end of town, and there’s barely a dry patch of road in sight. People have been canoeing to and from houses in the Alligator Acres and Brown Slough area.

The National Weather Service says the water in Bethel seems to be coming more from the tundra than from the river, actually, because of that flooded tundra, that sort of leaching water from ice jams that happened earlier in the week. There’s also ice jammed below in Napaskiak, and residents in lower parts of town in Bethel, if that ice jam doesn’t break, can expect water to keep rising.

CG: What are the river forecasters expecting here in the short term?

SS: So it’s kind of hard to say, partly because of that flooded tundra, but based on the river gauge and the tides National Weather Service officials say the worst case scenario is the river rises at least another foot or more here in Bethel in the next 24 to 48 hours. And we’re only a foot away from what’s considered moderate flooding as is and getting close to some record-breaking flooding at that. So if that worst case scenario happens, it would continue to perpetuate flooding in the nearby villages of Kwethluk, Napaskiak and Oscarville. So it really depends on whether a downstream ice jam that’s kind of around the Napaskiak area breaks or not.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
Related Content