Kivalina water pipeline repaired; students headed back to school

Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press
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.

Kivalina students will finally head back to classes Monday, five weeks after the fall semester was postponed because late summer storms damaged a water supply pipeline that left the school and teacher housing without clean water.

"They're pretty excited," city administrator Janet Mitchell said of students eager to get back to class. "They were pretty bored by now."

Temporary repairs to the three-mile pipeline have been made in the northwest Alaska village. Now crews are racing against the coming freeze-up to pump enough water from the Wulik River to last through winter.

As of Thursday afternoon, a 600,000 gallon tank for untreated water held 445,000 gallons of water and a 500,000 gallon tank had 80,000 gallons of treated water, according to John Spriggs, a tribal utility consultant with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The consortium has spearheaded the multi-entity effort to bring clean water back to the Inupiat Eskimo community of 400.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation on Thursday cleared treated water samples as safe to drink, lifting a boil-water notice. Mitchell called the news "a ray of sunshine."

To speed up the filling of the tanks, crews this week figured out a way to pump water into both tanks at once instead of one at a time, Spriggs said. He believes it's possible to fill both tanks before winter sets in.

"Unless Mother Nature has other ideas," he said.

The village was ready to fill the tanks in July, but did not have the necessary funds on hand. Then came the heavy August rains, which brought short-term problems to a community facing an uncertain future and a possible move due to climate change. The storms flooded Kivalina's landfill and broke the supply pipeline in places, sending some parts out to sea.

Gov. Sean Parnell declared a disaster in Kivalina earlier this month, following disaster declarations by the village and the Northwest Arctic Borough, another participant in the endeavor. The declaration makes state money available for emergency protective measures. Getting the DEC's clean water clearance couldn't come at a better time, with school starting up next week and nine teachers arriving at the village this week to prepare for classes, said school district superintendent Norm Eck. He said school officials will be meeting with parents to determine an adjusted schedule to make up for the time lost. It's likely the school year will be extended into June, however, he said.

For now, though, the focus is on Monday.

"That'll be a wonderful, wonderful day," Eck said.

Still, there's that nagging worry haunting Mitchell about the approaching cold. Once that happens, the pumping stops in the community, 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. Days already dawn with an occasional freeze, but it still thaws during the day.

"I've been saying my own prayers for the temperatures," Mitchell said.

Associated Press