Widespread high water and flooding continues for lower Kuskokwim communities

Floodwaters rise in Bethel’s Alligator Acres neighborhood on May 9, 2024. (Photo by MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

Kwethluk remains on flood warning, while Bethel and lower Kuskokwim communities are on flood advisory as the river swells over its banks.

National Weather Service Hydrologist Johnse Ostman said on KYUK morning show Coffee at KYUK on Thursday that high water is widespread throughout the lower Kuskokwim region.

“We’ve seen high water all the way from below lower Kalskag down through Bethel pretty much right to the breakup front, which last night was sitting about two miles downstream of Sunshine Slough between Napaskiak and Napakiak,” Ostman said.

Ostman said the high water isn’t just confined to the Kuskokwim main channel – the tundra is flooding as well. He says he believes that is contributing to the high water throughout the region.

Below is a summary of the flood and ice situations, moving south down the Kuskokwim River: 

Tuluksak and Akiak, which were major points of concern earlier in the week, are still flooding or partly flooding, but Ostman says they’re looking better than they were. Tuluksak continues to have issues with drinking water production after its source pond was inundated in the flooding, while as of Wednesday night (May 8), Akiak’s airport was still surrounded by water.

As of Wednesday evening, Akiachak still had intact ice in front of town, and high water had approached the power plant.

“Even though the water is very high surrounding them, they didn’t have any flood impacts,” Ostman said.

Kwethluk is still experiencing some of the worst flooding in the region. Ostman said that there’s ice running through the area, and that the waterlogged tundra and moving ice may be increasing water levels even more.

“Kwethluk is a real big concern for us today we’re going to be going back up there, taking a look,” Ostman said. “We know that all the whole village has water in it and you know we’re trying to make sure that they know what to do but after speaking with them being on the ground last night with them. They’re pretty prepared and know what their steps are.

Two canoers paddle their way out of the floodwaters in Bethel’s Alligator Acres neighborhood. May 9, 2024. (Photo by MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

Roads in the neighborhoods around Brown Slough in Bethel are covered with water, and Bethel schools announced early Thursday morning that flooding disrupted bus routes for students.

According to the Kuskokwim River gauge at Bethel, the river level rose around two feet between 8 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m. Thursday. The 8 a.m. river level of 10.85 feet puts Bethel well into the minor flooding stage, according to the National Weather Service’s metrics.

Roughly 6 miles downriver of Bethel in Napaskiak, the situation was developing rapidly Thursday morning. Napaskiak resident and Bethel Search and Rescue member Earl Samuelson said as of Thursday morning, ice was jammed in front of town.

“Just looking at the water levels here, we are extremely high right now,” Samuelson said. “All of the low-lying areas are now full of water. Water’s come over multiple places on the bank in front of town, and the north bank and is still gushing in.”

Samuelson continued: “I did an aerial survey with the drone just about 30 minutes ago, it showed that ice jam, the back end of it was right out here by the airport all the way to Oscarville.”

Flooding in Napaskiak on May 9, 2024. (Photo by Kristen Maxie)

As of Thursday morning, water had covered the boardwalk serving as the main access point to the school evacuation point, but Samuleson confirmed the village had a backup plan in place to utilize another boardwalk.

Ostman said Oscarville looks similar to Napaskiak.

“Oscarville has water over their boardwalk this morning. A resident there’s reported that it’s about as high as it was during Typhoon Merbok during that storm they were still able to access their evacuation point which is at the school.”

Ostman said as of Wednesday evening, the breakup front sat between Napaskiak and Napakiak, but that may have moved during the night.

“We had a report last night that they could hear the ice grinding at the breakup front so it it quite possibly as moved down a little bit further.”

Ostman said the National Weather Service plans to fly morning and evening RiverWatch flights where possible.

A man wades down a flooded Sixth Avenue in Bethel on May 9, 2024. (Photo by MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

“Our plans are just to continue to monitor this until flood threats and flooding has ceased for all villages upstream of the Johnson River.”

But, he said, he doesn’t expect additional slugs of ice from far upriver that could compound the lower river jams.

“As far as we know, there should be no more significant runs of ice coming from the upper Kuskokwim,” Ostman said.

He added that warmer temperatures in the coming days should degrade ice at the breakup front, and also increase snowmelt runoff from the upper river. What impact that could have on lower Kuskokwim communities remains unclear.

Breakup and flood-related information can change quickly, and this article may be updated to reflect more current information.

Share photos or observations with KYUK at 907-543-0223 or by emailing [email protected].

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