Wet Ground Leads to Sinking Backyards

By Beacon Staff

Rimrock Court, south of downtown Kalispell, looks like any other neighborhood in the Flathead Valley, with manicured lawns and well-kept homes. But what’s behind it is something out of a movie, homeowner Dawn Brown said.

Two months ago a crack appeared in her backyard. It grew slowly at first until last week when it ripped open, about 100 feet long, a foot wide and three to four feet deep in places, caused by saturated soils and excessive weight on the banks of Ashley Creek.

“Within days we watched it go down by the feet,” Brown said. “It’s just nuts.”

Rachel Burke and her two children have lost most of their backyards useable space due to erosion damage.

Next door, in Rachel Burke’s backyard, the collapsing ground took out a 30-by-15 foot deck. Burke and her family have lived in the house for four years and said that this is the first time they’ve ever had a problem like this. But this has also been one of the wettest springs in years. Because of that, erosion problems have been popping up all over the Flathead Valley, according to Larry VanRinsum, research conservationist for the Flathead Conservation District.

“The potential is always there but when you have rain like this it’s just much harder to deal with,” VanRinsum said.

VanRinsum said that there are about a half dozen similar cases around the valley and although the possibility for erosion is always there, this spring has been different with high water, saturated ground and a large melting snowpack.

And more could be on the way.

“It’s going to depend on Mother Nature and what comes out of the mountains,” VanRinsum said.

The situation at Rimrock Court has only been worsened by the removal of vegetation along Ashley Creek, poorly packed soil, a heavy concrete wall and storm drains that spill right on to the slope, according to conservation district supervisor Dan Bangeman.

“There’s a magnitude of things going on there,” Bangeman said.

Bangeman said another factor contributing to the erosion is the sandy glacier silt-type soil that is common in the valley. Once the soil becomes wet it is incredibly unstable, leading to situations like that seen along Ashley Creek.

Rachel Burke and her daughter Lauryn stand next to erosion damage in their backyard on Rimrock Court in Kalispell.

Both Brown and Burke said that their homes appear safe for now, having been inspected by an engineer, but they worry that things could get worse if the cracks get deeper and wider.

“This is changing on a daily basis and, depending on rainfall, sometimes hourly,” Burke said.

Both homeowners have consulted with engineers, contractors and soil specialists, and one of the causes of the erosion was poorly packed soil when the homes were built seven years ago. Brown and Burke both have insurance claims against the builders, but they still don’t know what they’ll do to repair it. For now, they’re waiting to see what happens next and gathering as much information as they can.

“We’re just trying to pick everyone’s brains to get a solution,” Brown said, who moved into her first home earlier this year.

But there has been one positive from the situation: meeting her neighbors.

“This has been an interesting bonding experience,” she said.

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