Residents in normally rainy Juneau asked to conserve water

Suzanna Caldwell

Most people don't think of water conservation when it comes wet, mossy Juneau, but for the last few weeks that's exactly what residents have been asked to do.

It's combination of events that has led the city and borough of Juneau to issue an advisory in mid-May asking residents of Alaska's capital city to voluntarily limit their recreational water uses, like watering their lawns or washing their cars and boats.

The problem is multi-tiered, according to Juneau Water Utility Superintendent Dave Crabtree.

Water coming into the system via the Salmon Creek reservoir has had high levels of turbidity -- a mixture of organic matter that gets churned up with the moving water and can clog the system when it's too high, he said.

That, coupled with the bypass of another reservoir line and an unusually warm spring that has people out recreating, caused water reservoir levels to drop to as low as 30 percent.

Then there's the lack of precipitation. Only 1.2 inches had been measured at the Juneau International Airport as of Friday, well below the 2-inch average normally collected by this point in May, marking this as the 11th driest year on record, said Juneau National Weather Service Meteorologist Richard Lam.

That has made supplying water to a city located in a temperate rain forest trickier than expected.

"You couldn't ask for a crazier dynamic," Crabtree said.

The reservoir levels have come up to 48 percent as of Friday, but with the Salmon Creek system still offline because of turbidity, the city is still asking the community to conserve until the system comes back online.

Crabtree said that should happen by Wednesday or Thursday, with the hope that restrictions will be lifted by next weekend.

"You don't normally see me praying for rain, but we're praying for rain just so there's not as much recreating going on," Crabtree said.

While the restrictions have been voluntary for the 30,000 residents of Juneau, for the cruise ships it has not. Since the restrictions went into place, Juneau has been selling no water to the ships, which often refill in the popular port.

Drew Green, port director for the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska in Juneau, said ships have been adapting as necessary, looking to purchase water in other coastal communities outside Juneau.

Cruise ships can purchase anywhere between 40,000 and 120,000 gallons of water at a time depending on the size of the ship and its needs.

Green said the water restriction in Juneau has been a problem for industry over the last 10 years, with even some restrictions last year. As long as the ships have notice, he said, it generally hasn't been a problem. In other parts of the world, ships deal with the same water access issues.

"If it's not available, it's not available," he said.

Crabtree said the utility received partial funding from the Legislature this year to install a filtration system on Salmon Creek that could help mitigate turbidity issues in the future, making shutdowns like this less of an issue. That system should be in place in the next 14 to 16 months.

For now, Juneau residents will just have to continue the voluntary restrictions. Weather is expected to be pleasant through Memorial Day, with clear, sunny skies predicted and high temperatures into the mid-60s expected through Monday. No rain is expected until Tuesday at the earliest.

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@