‘We’re on our own’: Sutton residents take Matanuska River erosion into their own hands
A neighborhood in Sutton has watched their properties wash away for years, as the Matanuska River inches closer to their homes. It’s a decades-old problem they say grows more urgent by the day, and they want help from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the state. But changing a natural force like a meandering glacial river is complicated.
“The last two years, previous, it’s been terrible,” said Donnah-Rae Devernon-Pearson.
She says the Matanuska River used to be at least half a mile away from her home, but over the years it’s moved in closer, carrying pieces of her upstream neighbors’ lives with it.
Wednesday, an old pickup truck showed up in the river in front of her house. Another piece of debris the river has picked up along the way and carried with it.
And the borough says it’s complicated to fix because it’s a state-owned river, meaning anyone who wants to clean it up or move debris has to have a special permit.
Any changes made to protect homes like Devernon-Pearson’s could hurt someone else downstream.
“So what do you do?” asked Devernon-Pearson. “Come up with something creative. That’s what my husband did.”
They can’t legally touch the river, but the couple decided they could build a makeshift dike — a long wall to prevent flooding — on their private property. Her husband placed four large metal boxes filled with rocks on land upstream. As the water has eroded that land, the boxes have helped redirect the water away from several homes. But even those boxes are moving under the force of the current.
A little farther upstream from the boxes is another reminder of the river’s power. Rushing water has eaten away what was once a yard behind a now empty home, carving out the bank and carrying it downstream.
Devernon-Pearson says she never knows what to expect to see in the river.
“There is, two years ago, there was actually a roof that was out down by our house that had floated down.”
Hot summer days make glacial rivers rise. The borough says that river has already been at flood levels this summer.
Borough spokesperson Patty Sullivan said the borough emergency manager is constantly watching for dangerous conditions. She also said it’s difficult for the borough to get involved because the land is privately-owned, and the river is state-owned.
She says they’ve been able to use funds from FEMA to buy out residents losing their land in the past but wasn’t able to say if that is a current option for residents.
KTVA wasn’t able to immediately reach someone with the state for comment.
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