Seward Highway Water Spout Closed
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) closed the Seward HWY water spout at MP 109 on Mar. 27 due to multiple safety concerns.
In a press release, DOT&PF gave a number of reasons for the closure writing, “This site is a designated Highway Safety Corridor and was the location of a serious injury and multi-car crash in 2017. The site is in a high-risk rock fall area, is among the top 10 highway risk sites in Alaska, and has experienced multiple rock falls since the Nov. 30 earthquake.”
The day before the closure, DOT&PF documented new rock fall at the site, which is known for ongoing rock fall and is classified as the fifth highest rock fall highway risk/hazard area in Alaska, according to the release. To mitigate the risk, DOT&PF removed rock from the face where the spout outlet used to be, which moved it up about ten feet higher. More changes are planned in the future.
According to the release, “DOT&PF is currently modifying the rock and shoulder at mile 109 to remove access to the drainage site and restrict vehicles from illegally parking on the cliff side of the road. DOT&PF is considering long-term engineering solutions for this area is which may include moving the cliff away from the highway.”
As the spout increased in popularity as a place to gather water, so did an increase of problems due to its location right beside the 55 mph zone of the highway. The release said these factors led to “illegal parking, risky pedestrian highway crossings and unexpected vehicle maneuvers. DOT&PF receives numerous public complaints about the safety at mile 109.”
Erich Scheunemann, Asst. Fire Chief, Anchorage Fire Department (AFD), described the safety hazards around MP 109, saying, “You’ve got the highway itself, so there are vehicles going at a high rate of speed for anyone that is pulled over. There is the potential for rockslides coming off of the face. There are high winds and weather conditions causing adverse road conditions. There are hazards related to the railroad and the tracks that are right there. Then there are natural hazards.”
Despite the complaints DOT&PF received about the spout, Scheunemann said while AFD has received calls for service, there have not been that many in the past few years. “I looked back to 2017, Scheunemann said. “Not many. There have been motor vehicle collisions. We’ve had one this year. We had a collision last year. In 2017, there was a person reported in the mud flats as well.”
The spout originated in the 1980s when DOT&PF drilled several holes in the rock face to stabilize it and alleviate water pressure. The spout was never an official public water source, and it is not tested for safe consumption by any regulatory agency. Geologists believe the water originates as surface runoff from the area above the highway and is susceptible to contamination from bacteria, parasites and viruses.
To learn more about the recent and future work at MP 109, the Gazette interviewed Shannon McCarthy, DOT&PF Media Liaison, Administrative Operations Manager. She said last year geologists began analyzing the rock fall prone areas between MP 104 and 114.
“This last year, we did a lot of geology work analyzing the area between MP 114 and 104,” McCarthy said. “This site in particular (MP 109) was determined to be one of the higher hazard and risk areas for rock fall. Then we have the Nov. 30 earthquake. We’re seeing additional rock fall at the area. Coupled with all of the risks, the department moved toward closing the water spout.”
With the spout’s former face scrapped back, the water seeps or pours before draining into an existing culvert underneath the highway and into Turnagain Arm. There is no plan for future development of the site for water gathering because it is not part of DOT&PF’s purpose as an agency.
“If we move the water to point A to point B and encouraged people to containerize on the opposite side of the road, there is going to be an expectation by the public that the water is safe.” McCarthy said. ”We’re not a water agency. We don’t provide for public water or do testing, and then we would have to maintain for the purposes of clean water. That is away from our mission, which is the transportation of goods and services and people.”
When asked why MP 109 ranked in the top 10 Alaska highway risks in the press release, McCarthy responded, “There is fracturing in the rocks. It is very close to the road. It is within 17 feet of the fog line on the northbound lanes, so it’s close in proximity and the rock is fragmented. With the geology and earthquakes the way they are, that rock is really deteriorated and coming down.”
McCarthy said the hazardous, high risk area will undergo future work but is in the early planning stage. “We’ve developed two projects to deal with rock fall,” she said. “MP 109, because of that really tall rock face, is a little more complicated. It has been combined with MP 113, which is the icefall area. It is just starting design right now. It is very preliminary. We would like to move the rock face away from the roadway.”
Besides an increased rock fall hazard, McCarthy describes other hazards at MP 109. The mixing of high-speed traffic with pedestrian traffic in close proximity, especially in summer, presents a safety risk. She said there are normally between 8,000 to 9,000 vehicles a day on the Seward HWY. In summer, the number peaks to 20,000 vehicles a day. There are families and younger people who are crossing to gather water, and they may not be as fast or aware as they should be to cross safely.
“People have reported to us a lot of near misses,” McCarthy said. “It’s really bad to mix pedestrian traffic with high speed traffic.”
Over the years McCarthy has received a mix of compliments and complaints about removing the spout, but the decisive factor in the decision over the spout was public safety.