A month of near-constant downpours has finally lifted the Ketchikan area out of drought after more than a year. But getting all that rain all at once presents an entirely new set of problems.
As recently as early October, the Ketchikan area was in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
That’s especially tough for a community that gets nearly all of its power from hydroelectric dams. With lake levels too low to support power generation, Ketchikan had to turn to backup diesel generators.
Ketchikan’s electric utility even had to rent an additional four diesel generators to keep up with demand. Electricity prices spiked as the utility passed the increased cost of diesel generation on to consumers.
But then came November. The National Weather Service says Ketchikan has gotten more than 21 inches of rain this month. And the fact that the rain came so quickly presents its own challenges.
“We filed into the parking lot around eight o’clock and we noticed that the creek was pretty high and flowing pretty hard,” said Ketchikan Public Utilities Electric Manager Andy Donato. It’s his job to keep an eye on the dams that generate much of Ketchikan’s electricity. If the lakes get too high, that’s a problem.
“If the lake is allowed to get up high enough and overflows the earthen dam portion, well then there’s reason for erosion,” he said.
And if the dam starts to erode, that could have catastrophic consequences.
Earlier this month, heavy rains raised water levels above the spillway at Ketchikan Lakes. That triggered emergency response protocols.
“We had a lot of mobilization to do,” Donato said. “We had a lot of notifications to make. And basically the community got ready for a bigger disaster.”
This rapid swing from abnormally dry weather to very wet weather could be a sign of things to come, says Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Though most people think of climate change simply in terms of rising temperatures, Brettschneider says that’s only one part of it. For Southeast Alaska, climate change will likely mean more wetter weather — more rain.
But while Ketchikan and the rest of Southeast might get wetter, Brettschneider says paradoxically, droughts could become more common as well.
It all comes back to rising temperatures.
“Because of warmer temperatures, when it doesn’t rain, there’ll be more drying of the land and the environment,” Brettschneider said. “So when it when it doesn’t rain, when we do have dry spells, we think they’ll be more severe.”
In Ketchikan, though, businesses along the same creek that nearly flooded earlier this month say they’re not terribly worried about a future that could include more rapid weather swings — and potentially, more flooding.
“It isn’t really something I think about,” said Grace Freeman. She helps run the Soho Coho art gallery on the town’s popular Creek Street boardwalk. She says that creekside businesses will find ways to adapt.
“Hopefully we’ll figure a way to do it,” she said. “I mean, all the buildings are on pilings, so there is a way that we can raise them.”
Back at Ketchikan Public Utilities, Donato says he’s just glad to see the rains return after the 16-month drought.
“You couldn’t ask for a better situation than what we have right now,” Donato said. “We’re basically chock-a-block full on all our reservoirs going into December. And that’s exactly what you hope for.”
He says November’s rain means the utility will finally be able to return the last of its rented diesel generators. That’ll lower and eventually eliminate the diesel surcharge on locals’ electricity bills in the months to come.
But Donato and others throughout Southeast may have a tough road ahead. These rain-dependent communities will have to figure out how to adapt to a climate that might look very different than dam builders planned for.
This story is part of a collaboration between KRBD and Alaska’s Energy Desk.