Decades ago, before much of West Jackson was developed and when conditions were right, kids could — and would — ice skate from somewhere around what is now Karns Meadows Drive down to at least where the bridge at High School Road now exists.
Now, after years of development, that same stretch is better known for its winter flooding concerns and the resultant damage to property and homes. Anyone familiar with the stretch of Flat Creek from around Karns Meadow Drive on the northeast down to the high school bridge on High School Road to the southwest has seen the creek’s waters encroach on homes and buildings in the area during the winter months.
And this year has been less than pleasant for those living in that area, particularly those who live in the Flat Creek Water Improvement District — soon to be known as the Flat Creek Watershed Improvement District, in order to better align with the statutes under which the district operates — as a locally common, though not well-known culprit has plagued them throughout the winter months.
There are few places where frazil ice causes problems like it does in Jackson Hole. Ice crystals are formed when frigid air surrounds a moving body of water — such as Flat Creek — that throws small amounts of that water into the air, where it freezes, then drops back to the water as ice crystals. The frazil ice is heavier than the water to which it returns, so it immediately sinks to the bottom. It compiles itself on the bottom of that moving body of water as “anchor ice,” explained Town of Jackson Assistant Public Works Director Johnny Ziem and Flat Creek Water Improvement District board chairman Sandy Buckstaff, along with numerous online sources. Ziem also serves on the water improvement district board as a representative of the town, which owns property within the district.
During cold winter months, the anchor ice builds and builds — in this specific case, in Flat Creek — and essentially creates a dam. From there, the water crests over the “shelf ice” that develops from the creek’s banks and floods the surrounding areas, sometimes invading homes or other structures.
“As all those processes work at the same time, it just starts creating this issue where [anchor] ice is growing and the water keeps coming higher and higher ... and then it finds the path of least resistance and floods [over the banks],” Ziem said.
It just so happens that, even though Flat Creek runs through all of Jackson and beyond, the worst-affected flooding areas lie between that Karns Meadow Drive area to the north and the high school bridge. For decades, Ziem explained, when water would crest over the creek banks and threaten people’s properties, nobody was really sure who to call, so they’d call town staff, who would then get excavators out to clear the ice and remedy the problem at least temporarily.
But the Flat Creek Water Improvement District was formed in 2015 covering the aforementioned section of Jackson. Anyone who owns property within the zone that abuts Flat Creek is required to pay an annual tax or fee to the district, to the tune of about $240. Those funds help pay for the cost of ice excavation to prevent flooding.
This year, though not the worst some Flat Creek landowners have seen, has been particularly rough. Whereas the creek’s ice has to be excavated, on average, once or twice a year — the FCWID has access easement agreements with some property owners in order to get the backhoes into the creek — this year has seen the excavators clearing ice “probably five or six times,” said Buckstaff, the district’s board chair.
“It’s been tough, but I wouldn’t say it’s the worst year that I’ve seen ... We’ve had some unusual backups near the Snow King bridge that we hadn’t had before, but other areas haven’t been any worse, or even less bad, than other years,” said Buckstaff, a former Jackson town engineer who bought his property in the district in 1994 has lived there since the beginning of the 2000s.
He added, “I, personally, would say the worst year was 2001, but that was because my house had 3 1/2 feet of water in it.”
Ziem said it’s nearly impossible to predict how much ice buildup to expect each winter — the worst period is roughly between Nov. 10 and Jan. 31, Buckstaff said, the time of year when Snow King casts a shadow over the creek for the majority of the day — but Ziem noted that he “[lives] on watching the weather and trying to see when we’ll have these three-, four-, five-day warm spells that help clear it up.”
Other methods than the bullyish, obtrusive excavation of the ice have been explored over the years, culminating in the town drilling three “thaw wells” — two of which are still in operation — in Flat Creek to help alleviate the frazil and subsequent anchor ice issues. As Ziem explained, the thaw wells, which are dug about 150 feet deep, effectively draw warmer subsurface water into the creek and warm the water up to about 2,000 feet downstream, alleviating the need for excavators to break up and remove ice.
About three more strategically placed thaw wells are needed, Buckstaff said, but they don’t come cheap, with a final price tag of about $225,000 including consulting fees and everything that goes along with them. One of those has already been funded through its incorporation into the Gregory Lane SPET-funded project, he said, and Buckstaff and the board are currently exploring ways to fund the other two, such as federal or state grants or other means of defraying the cost.
Franz Camenzind has lived on Flat Creek not far from the public library for 43 years and has over 100 yards of the creek on his property, perhaps more than any other single-family private residence in Jackson. Camenzind, who was on the original Flat Creek district board after its 2015 formation, is quick to note that the group’s mission is to protect property and homes from winter flooding damage while maintaining the integrity of the creek and improving habitat and water quality.
He also wastes no time in pointing a finger at where he believes the blame truly lies.
“Flat Creek flooding, obviously, is a natural situation. The problem is that we’ve all built too close to the creek,” he said matter-of-factly. “A lot of this area was subdivided before we had setbacks. ... That’s where the problem is. The creek is not the problem. It’s the way we’ve built our homes, the way we’ve developed along the creek. That’s the problem. Flooding is a natural thing. What we’re dealing with is a creek doing its normal natural thing, and the people doing something we shouldn’t have done.”
Camenzind, a biologist by training and decades-long conservationist, is no fan of excavators entering the creek, worrying about the various ways they could potentially damage it. He says he favors the thaw wells, but is curious to learn more about any possible negative effects they might have. At the end of the day, he wants human-created damage to Flat Creek mitigated as much as possible.
“We’ve got to do better for the creek,” he said. “I think what we all want is to improve the environmental and water quality of the creek, but what we’re doing now is the old-fashioned [way of] just throw the backhoe in. I think there are alternatives.”