Low Nushagak River level delays Koliganek school construction

Dave BendingerBristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman

Barges carrying the materials for the new K-12 school to be built in Koliganek this year were turned back by impassably low water on the Nushagak River this month.

As the weather conditions have not changed, spring delivery has been canceled, and the construction of the school will not start this summer as planned.

"The sad part is we had 10 or 15 people up there, local hires, who were expecting to work all summer," said Rick Dallmann, director of facilities and maintenance for the Southwest Region School District. "I think some of them even traded a fishing season for the construction work, and it's not going to happen now."

Two barges tried to make the 65-mile trip upriver and held at Portage Creek before they were called back. Lack of rain, combined with the low winter snow conditions that melted before breakup, has left the Nushagak River running desperately low.

"The company we work with had committed the month of May to get the materials up there, but the barges couldn't make it past Portage Creek," Dallmann said.

"Now those vessels have other scheduled runs to make elsewhere. We're hoping they'll be back for another try this fall and that we'll have gotten enough rain by then to make the trip possible."

The new Koliganek School is currently an enormous pile of containers and building materials sitting neatly at the Dillingham City Dock, where it seems likely to remain for the next couple of months. Dallmann estimates the pile totals probably a million pounds of freight.

"I probably have $9 million or $10 million worth of material in those 50 containers and other stacks," he said.

"Really, there is basically a whole school sitting there, from the structural steel, to the roofing, the sheet rock, big foam panels, everything we needed to get going."

That is not to say the logistical team rolled over without a fight. Dallmann said every feasible option was considered.

"We looked at everything: a hovercraft, helicopter, big airplanes, but we got stymied on all of them. You know, like the runway is too short for the size of airplane we'd need to haul those loads up there.

"The helicopter and hovercraft just can't haul enough each trip, so we would have had to pay for a hundred runs or more."

Another option was to ship the materials to Ekwok, stage there, and run the remaining distance on smaller barges and local landing craft.

"But with the way the river is now, even that was out of the question," Dallmann said. "We are just not going to be able to pull anything up the Nushagak for the foreseeable future."

The village broke ground on the $25 million, 17,900-square-foot school project last May, and some foundation work was finished in summer 2013. The construction was scheduled to start early this summer, with a completion date of next spring.

"We had everybody geared up and ready, and so did the general contractor Unit Company out of Anchorage," Dallmann said.

"It was going to be fast-paced, and we were hoping to be finished by next February or March."

If the material does make it to Koliganek this summer, Dallmann hopes the school can still be finished, just a few months behind schedule.

"I think they're disappointed in Koliganek, for sure," he said.

"I'm afraid it might be especially tough on some of the local hires who were counting on this summer work. But that's the way it goes with this river. We can't make it rain."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.