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Small Dam on Slough Helps Big Delta Man Protect His Home Along Tanana River

Tom Gorman

Big Delta resident Tom Gorman says a small dam he built earlier this year to protect his home from the meandering Tanana River held steady over the past couple of weeks as the river rose to near-flood level, due to recent rains. Gorman now hopes the river falls quickly enough to allow him to finish work on the dam before snow flies.

Tom Gorman stands at the edge of a 20-foot-wide slough off the Tanana River that runs along the foot of a ridge on which he built his house about seven years ago and says this isn’t how it looked back then.

“Last year, it was dry!” Gorman said.

He says a couple dozen trees used to grow in and around the area, which served as a sort of buffer between his big three-story house and the Tanana River some 45 feet away. Until January, that is, when an ice dam on the Tanana diverted a torrent of water into the area that tore out the trees and gouged into the riverbank, threatening to undercut the ridge where his house sits.

“And that just came in and just took ’em out, one at a time – pow! Two hours later, another one – bam! It just got behind ’em, the erosion behind ’em, and just ripped ’em up.”

Credit Tom Gorman
An aerial view showing how ice diverted much of the Tanana River into the small slough at the foot of the ridge on which Gorman built his home.

That was near the beginning of an ordeal that lasted for several weeks, as Gorman and a small army of friends, neighbors, contractors and others tried to bust up the pile of thick ice slabs. They attempted to melt it with a de-icing solution; they tried to bust it up with a 5,000-pound weight dropped from a helicopter; they even detonated explosives to blast it open. Nothing worked.

“No – well, not on 3-, 4-foot (thick) ice,” he said. “That’s what you had over here, all the way across.”

Gorman says state and federal officials for the most part supported his effort to save the house. He says he didn’t get any help from his homeowner’s insurance company, but he got lots from dozens of volunteers from all around the area.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Posts supporting a corner of the deck on Gorman's house sank as the river eroded the riverbank. Gorman removed many of the deck boards and jacked up the structure to hold it in place until he can make permanent repairs once he's completed shoring up the riverbank and the foot of the ridge on which the house sits. The small dam he built across the slough is visible in left side of photo.

“The community’s helped me out,” he said, “and they really pulled together.”

Gorman is a retiree from Texas, and he says the cost of trying to break the ice jam further strained his finances, which he’d already deeply tapped to buy the land and, in 2009, build a house for his family, which includes his wife and elderly mom, disabled son and daughter with kids.

Gorman says he’s been asked many times: why did he build his dream house so close to the river?

“We were safe,” he said, “we were really safe when we built this house.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Gorman says he knows "the Tanana moves all the time," which is why he sought advice on where to build his home from longtime area residents familiar with the river.

Gorman says he followed advice on where to build given by his contractor and two neighbors, both of whom have lived along that stretch of the river for more than 40 years. But the ice-jam backup surprised everyone, he says as he shows photos of riverwater tearing through the slough and frantic efforts to slow its destruction.

“It came around this way, and it starts cutting in here,” he said. “It cut in here and fell down. It cut and just headed right toward the house.”

Gorman says when the ice jam finally gave way, he and his had crew a chance to bring in equipment to shore up 150 feet of riverbank with big rocks – and to build an 8-foot-tall dam across the slough.

“What this dam did here was to really stop the current,” he said. “Once the current was stopped, then I could get in here and do something.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
The 8-foot-tall dam that Gorman built earlier this year across the slough was submerged after recent rains raised the Tanana River level. Gorman laid a course of sandbags over the top of the structure to slow the river current and the erosion it causes. "It's holding," Gorman says.

Gorman says when the river rose a couple of weeks ago, he saw that the dam, which is built of interlocking concrete barriers, wasn’t quite high enough. So he laid a course of sandbags on top it to slow the flow to trickle.

“It’s holding,” he said, “but it’s not done. It has to be completed.”

But Gorman says he can’t bring equipment back in until the river drops and the area dries out.

“The water has got to go down, because what happens is you put the equipment down there and it’s so soft that it’s going to push the dam away.”

Gorman says that may not happen before the first snow flies two or three months from now. He says he’d prefer to do the work before winter sets in, but if he runs out of time, he’ll pay the extra cost of doing the work in the winter to save his home.