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Torrential rains cause numerous woes in Northwest Alaska

Michelle Theriault Boots
High water from heavy rains deposited refuse from the landfill around the village of Kivalina. Vice Mayor Austin Swan Sr. declared a disaster because of the landfill situation and a shortage of drinking water, and school has been delayed.
Photo by AUSTIN SWAN SR.

A week of torrential rain has caused havoc in Northwest Alaska, delaying air traffic, flooding a landfill and causing problems for one village's supply of drinking water.

Starting on August 13, an unusual low pressure front over the Chukchi Sea poured rain on the Northwest Arctic, especially the area north of Kotzebue, said National Weather Service hydrologist and meteorologist Ed Plumb. The front persisted for a week or so, he said, stuck in the same pattern.

"If a storm rolls through and keeps going, it's fine," he said. "We had rain falling over the same area almost nonstop."

The Red Dog Mine area picked up nearly 9 inches of rain between August 13-19, he said. That's half the rain the area normally gets for an entire year. Last Wednesday, the mine got 3 inches of rain in a single day.

"It is not unusual to get heavy rains there in August," he said. "It is unusual to have nearly half of your annual precipitation in a week."

Other spots in the region recorded between 4-6 inches of rain over the week, Plumb said.

The rain may not be over. The National Weather Service says more is on the way this week.

In Ambler, the rains have threatened to wash out a bridge used to access subsistence hunting areas, said Wendie Schaeffer of the Northwest Arctic Borough. And in Kiana, she said, four not-yet-opened shipping containers are partly underwater because of "extremely high" waters on the Kobuk River. Planes ferrying workers to and from the Red Dog Mine were delayed from Wednesday until Sunday due to poor visibility, said Red Dog Operations spokesman Wayne Hall.

But it's the coastal village of Kivalina that has taken the worst of it. A flooded landfill has contaminated favored berry-picking grounds, and a lack of safe drinking water has delayed the start of the school year.

The village is on a barrier island exposed to the ocean on one side and a large lagoon that the Kivalina River and Wulik River empty into on the other. The village has had serious erosion problems caused in part by spring and fall storms off the Chukchi Sea.

But the problems of the past week came not from the ocean but from the lagoon, said Janet Mitchell, a village administrator.

The rain-swollen Wulik and Kivalina rivers washed into the lagoon to the east of the village, said Plumb. Then high water in the lagoon flooded the landfill, about a mile and a half from the village, contaminating water near the village, said Schaeffer.

"Items from the landfill -- anything from honey bucket waste, household trash, vehicle batteries, non-functioning equipment -- it's putting all of that stuff in to the lagoon," Schaeffer said.

At the same time, delays in replenishing the village's water supply -- which is pumped in from the Wulik River -- have been compounded by the rains.

The tanks, now dry, can't be filled with water from the river because it is muddy and filled with debris from the storms.

"It's unsuitable for drinking," Schaeffer said.

For now, village residents don't have safe drinking water.

"Only those that gather rainwater have drinking water," Mitchell wrote in an email.

The borough has authorized people to take bottled water from the village store, Schaeffer said.

Without enough safe drinking water in the village, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District refuses to send the nine teachers who staff the school to the village.

School was supposed to start on Monday. It won't start until there's safe drinking water in the village again, which may take several days, said Norman Eck, the school district superintendent.

The teachers are waiting in Kotzebue for the water situation to be resolved, he said.

The Red Dog Mine, east of Kivalina, is in talks to allow the village to take drinking water from its port facility about 17 miles south where seawater is turned into drinking water using a reverse osmosis process, said Hall. The company would also help with gasoline costs to get boats back to the village.

"We recognize there is a real need (in) that community," he said.

On Wednesday, a team from the state will visit Kivalina to look at whether the landfill contamination there meets the threshold for a state disaster declaration, said Schaeffer.

For now, residents are getting by sharing rainwater with elders and families with babies, Mitchell said, and awaiting the beginning of school.

It's a little unnerving to think that this is just the beginning of the traditionally stormy fall season of September and October, when Kivalina gets slammed by erosion-causing wind and waves from the ocean side, she said.

"I'm left wondering how the season will be."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News