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Double the danger

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The popular and dangerous Seward Highway spring/Craig Medred photo

TURNAGAIN ARM – As if the danger of pedestrians being hit by speeding cars on the busy Seward Highway wasn’t enough, the Alaska Department of Transportation says that what has come to be a popular, roadside water stop is now threatened with rock falls from high above.

 

The manmade spring that geysers out of the base of a 100-foot wall of greywacke near Mile 109 on the Seward has long been an attractive danger. The water shoots out of the rock on the side of the busy highway opposite the parking lot.

Commuters who regularly make the 40-mile drive from the ski-community of Girdwood to work in Anchorage say it is a small miracle no one has been hit crossing the road to get water. On Friday, while this story was being reported, a car had to come to a complete stop in the middle of the highway when a couple of inattentive women walking back to the parking lot failed to look before crossing.

There is no pedestrian crossing.

Recognizing the risks of people on foot being hit by cars doing 55 mph, DOT made plans to install safety signs along the highway warning drivers of people scurrying across the road. Recent rockfall, however, has made the agency change its minds.

“Just recently, we had some rockfall right at the water spout, some pretty big rocks came down” DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy told KTUU.com.

Whether it was the rockfall or DOT that took out the white, plastic feeder pipe that used to direct water from above head height on the cliff to near ground level is unclear. But the 5-foot pipe that once made it easy to fill water jugs is now gone.

That left Brian Pleasanton struggling to fill two five-gallon jugs on Friday.

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Brian Pleasanton strains to fill a five-gallon jug/Craig Medred photo

“This is a pain in the butt now,” he said.

With the long, white feeder pipe gone, someone had jury-rigged a new spout. A piece of metal pipe had been pushed into a hole in the cliff drilled years ago to relieve water pressure inside the cliff, and an Evian water bottle with its bottom cut off was then wedged in the pipe.

The water poured neatly out of the mouth of the bottle, but a brisk wind blowing down the Arm forced Pleasanton to hold his jug high against the cliff to catch the water before the wind scattered it.

Pleasanton said it was worth it.

“It’s good water,” he said.

The water has been regularly promoted over the years by both the mainstream and alternative media and featured in various travel guides. It borders on famous.

“On a whim I recently stopped and tried it and now I understand the appeal. The spring water at Mile 109.5 is marked by its purity but also a certain crispness and sweetness,” Dave McCabe wrote in The Anchorage Press in 2014. “Sure it’s great water, but what makes it so great that it’s developed such a cult following? I mean, sometimes there is a line of people waiting to get some.”

“The routing of the pipe is such that it’s perfect for filling up water jugs,” he added. “If its sole purpose was to control runoff, the pipe could have easily been positioned differently so the water was run more directly along the ground straight to the culvert. My personal theory is that some benevolent and creative-minded highway worker tasted this water and thought that it should be shared with others, but that if the highway department ‘fessed up to this it might create obligations to maintain the pipe and liability for people crossing a busy highway to get the water.”

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Mary Miller fills her cup/Craig Medred photo

The roadside fountain has now attracted enough attention that it draws tourists. Mary Miller from Oklahoma and a friend were stopped to fill their cups at the spring on Friday evening.

They didn’t seem particularly worried about rock fall dangers. Neither did anyone else.

But the danger is real. Falling rock has several  times forced closure of the highway in recent years. 

Some researchers have suggested a warming climate has increased freeze-thaw cycles which can destabilize broken rock of the sort common to the Chugach Mountains. 

DOT notes rockfalls occur most often in freeze-thaw conditions or in heavy rains. Heavy rain falling into cracks in the rocks, or driven into cracks by high wind increase pressure inside the rock and increase the odds it will come apart.

The agency says it’s a good idea to avoid the cliffs in this kind of weather, but it says it’s not going to try to ban people from collecting water.  McCarthy told KTUU that DOT considers water collection a “recreational activity.”

 

 

 

 

 

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9 replies »

  1. HI Craig. Thank you for covering this. Driving past the magical water spout for the past 20 years twice a day, I am still in awe at its popularity. So many times it’s nearly causing an accident, you are avoiding inattentive people and often big rocks. Having had the pleasure of hauling water for a dry cabin for many years in Fairbanks, i just don’t see the purpose of this of keeping this hazard on an already dangerous hwy.

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  2. How do I monetize this miracle? Maybe I could fill 5 gallon jugs and sell them on the Sears parking lot. Once I walked into Safeway and saw a pyramid of “Diet Water” bottles. The promoter’s rationale for calling it diet water is that if you’re on a diet you’re supposed to drink a lot of water. Very solid science this guy is pushing! So three months later I read in a business magazine how he became an overnight millionaire.

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  3. I often laugh when I drive by that water spout. Have you ever looked at the people that collect water there? Usually they are folks in poor health. It’s funny that someone that is fat and smoking a cigarette thinks that drinking mythical elixir water from the cliff is the answer to improving their health. When stopping smoking and overeating and getting some excursive is what will really help them. And you don’t have to dodge traffic to do those things. These same people are really slow moving, especially when they are carrying heavy 5 gallon jugs across the road. So that makes it even more dangerous. The situation is funny, in a sick way, because it is so stupid. A stupid situation that allows stupid people to do stupid things.

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  4. The state shouldn’t be spending money on signage. Signs, that will then force responsibility on drivers, only gives people that are stupid enough to dodge heavy traffic to get to the magic water spout more encouragement to be stupid. If the state wants to spend money, then they should fill the hole in the cliff with drilling cement. The state created this dangerous problem by drilling a hole in the cliff. The state can fix this dangerous problem by plugging the hole they drilled in the cliff.

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    • that’s a valid conclusion, but it would probably be better to just pipe the water under the road. my understanding is the hole was drilled because they were worried about water pressure in the cliff destabilizing the rock. DOT appears to agree with you somewhat on signage. the indication here is that they think signage would increase use of the spout. i’m not sure it makes any difference.

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  5. “It’s good water” the man said. Hmmm, you sure about that? Just last year the ridge above was coated with fire retardant, dropped from aircraft while fighting the McHugh Creek fire. That crap must have worked its way through cracks in the rock to this water hole by now. “It’s good water” the man said. Yup for sure, you are guaranteed not to catch fire if you drink this water.

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    • james: there are possibilities and there are probabilities. what you suggest is a possibility, but given that the research shows little change in surface water quality from the use of retardants, it’s not very likely there would be an affect on ground water especially in an area that gets as much rain as this one and dilutes/flushes very quickly: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16023176
      i’d worry a lot more about people getting hit and killed by motor vehicles here than i would about the water. making the water hard to obtain was probably a good thing. piping it into the ground and into the culvert so that the water emerges on the parking lot side of the road might be an even better idea.

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    • Craig, I’m not sure I buy the logic that this hole was drilled on purpose to relieve water pressure in the cliff. If that was the case, why was only one hole drilled? You can’t tell me that one hole hit the magic pressure relief spot. A more logical explanation would be that drilling contractors saw a crack with a seep and during a lunch break they drilled a hole for kicks.

      If the hole was needed to “relieve pressure”, why aren’t there many such holes (with drainage pipes) in the Anton Tunnel to Whittier. Or along the Keystone Canyon east of Valdez? The rock is the same Chugach graywacke. And it’s much wetter in those places. Heck, the Whittier tunnel even has a glacier melting above it.

      Not addressing the danger caused by pilgrimages to the magic water spout says a lot about Alaska DOT. They can readily take $100s of millions of federal dollars to straighten a mile of road on the Seward Highway to make it safer. But DOT can’t take the time to put a $100 epoxy plug in a cliff to put and end to a blatantly dangerous situation. As usual, some kid will have to get mowed down and killed by a car or truck before the state does anything.

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      • Rory: i think i counted at least four holes there. two are dry, if memory serves me right. one is a seep. and the other is a gusher. i tend to believe the pressure relief story. and why drill several holes if you WEREN’T trying to hit some sweet spot?

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