Lack of drinking water in Kivalina keeps school closed

Kyle Hopkins

The Kivalina school remained closed Monday with no clear date when classes will resume due to a lack of drinking water in the coastal, barrier reef village.

Storm after storm soaked the Inupiaq community and many others in Northwest Alaska beginning in mid-August. In Kivalina's case, a nearby river surged to the highest point since at least 1985, clouding water that was to be used to fill village holding tanks.

Classes in the village, scheduled to begin Aug. 20, have been indefinitely postponed until running water can be restored to the school buildings and teacher housing.

"There's no telling when it's going to clear up, when the turbidity is going to go down. It's all dependent upon Mother Nature," said city administrator Janet Mitchell.

The storms also damaged piping used to pump water from the Wulik River to the village water plant, problems that could take weeks to fix, said Norm Eck, superintendent for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.

State officials with the emergency management division, along with members of the borough and Department of Environmental Conservation, visited the village last week and are now considering options for restoring drinking water before freeze-up begins in October, said division spokesman Jeremy Zidek.

"The cost estimates are fairly low. Thus far it's something we would see as something that could be handled locally, but we're certainly there because it is a life-safety issue with having potable water in the community," Zidek said.

The Northwest Arctic Borough and city of Kivalina, population 400, have declared the situation a disaster. The borough is asking the state to do the same.

"There is drinking water in the community," Zidek said. "They're catching rain -- and there's been a lot of rain lately -- so they do have rainwater that they can boil and then drink," Zidek said.

A 20-ounce bottle of water at the local store costs residents of the cash-poor community $3.39, store employees said. The borough has paid to make bottled water available to pregnant mothers, infants and others, employees said.

More rain, about half an inch, was expected to fall in the region Tuesday, said Ed Plumb, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. But overall, water levels on the Wulik River have been trending downward after cresting Aug. 16, when they reached a high of more than 3 feet above the previous recorded high in 1994.

Mitchell, meantime, said she is making the most of the rainwater that she collects in garbage cans and a 150-gallon container, sharing some of the water with her son. Chores that people in Alaska cities take for granted are now a luxury in Kivalina, she said.

"We did the unthinkable yesterday," Mitchell said. "We did laundry."

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