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As Kwethluk remains flooded, the end of historic breakup in sight for downriver communities

The Kuskokwim River breakup front is seen below Napakiak at the mouth of the Johnson River on May 11, 2024.
National Weather Service
The Kuskokwim River breakup front is seen below Napakiak at the mouth of the Johnson River on May 11, 2024.

The National Weather Service reports that a large ice jam below Napakiak has moved downriver and is showing signs of breaking up, alleviating serious concerns for multiple lower Kuskokwim communities.

“It looks rotten, it looks weak. You can see where the breakup front is, it's kind of chewing its way through that pretty steadily,” said National Weather Service Hydrometeorologist Kyle Van Peursem on May 11.

Van Peursem said that the breakup front could jam up again as it works its way down the Kuskokwim. In the ideal scenario, this will happen 10 to 15 miles below Napakiak where a sheet of strong, intact ice remains.

“Our hope is that if it were to jam down there, it'll be far enough downstream that any backwater from that wouldn't actually impact, or have very minimal impacts for, the villages upstream,” Van Peursem said.

On the night of May 10 in Napaskiak, water came within inches of flooding some homes and one family reportedly took shelter in the school. But by the afternoon of May 11, Van Peursem said that the airport had once again become accessible by four-wheeler. He said that waters had receded multiple feet in Oscarville as well.

In Bethel, the Brown’s Slough river gauge dropped below the 10-foot mark, bringing residents living along the slough some relief after days spent wading or boating to and from homes.

Upriver in Kwethluk, Van Peursem received reports that water had gone down roughly a foot, but that flooding was still widespread across the community and the road to the airport was still cut off by high water.

“There's just a lot of meltwater coming down the Kwethluk River,” Van Peursem said. “So they could kind of see prolonged high water for a bit there.”

Breakup flooding is seen in Kwethluk on May 10, 2024.
National Weather Service
Breakup flooding is seen in Kwethluk on May 10, 2024.

Julia Long with the State Emergency Operations Center said that Kwethluk’s water pump, damaged earlier in the breakup flooding, had been repaired. She said that volunteer agencies were flying in bottled water to the community as the water system was brought back online.

While boats were seen plying the waters of the Kuskokwim between Bethel and Napaskiak on May 11, breakup isn’t over yet.

RiverWatch officials said that they will continue to conduct daily flights of the lower Kuskokwim River and monitor the situation in Kwethluk.

Over on the Yukon River, the upper river was still in the early stages of breakup as of May 11. According to the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center, a persistent jam remains 12 miles upriver from Circle. Far below in the lower Yukon communities of Russian Mission and Marshall, reports of shifting ice and local breakup have also been received.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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