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Another Alaska village says good riddance to the honey bucket

Alex DeMarban

Families in the village of Chuathbaluk can now turn on the tap and flush toilets after waiting a decade for a village-wide sanitation system, but some 6,000 households in rural Alaska, and the 20,000 or so people who live there, still rely largely on buckets and barrels to collect water and haul human waste to sewage lagoons.

Such projects aren't cheap, though they offer enormous health benefits because people clean themselves more when water flows from faucets, researchers have found. Chuathbaluk's new system, for example, cost $15 million -- or more than $100,000 for each of the 135 residents in that Kuskokwim River village in Southwest Alaska.  

Federal funding for such systems has dropped sharply since the boom times from the late 1990s until the middle of last decade -- when the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was at the height of his power as chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Rural homes with indoor plumbing jumped from 60 percent in 1998 to 80 percent today.

Funding dropping sharply

Today, federal funding and the 25 percent state match that came with it have plummeted by two-thirds over the last nine years, from $97.3 million to $35.5 million. Meanwhile, costs are up sharply, said Bill Griffith, facility programs manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation.   

These days, the state and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium are limited to doing gradual work on projects launched a decade or more ago or updating old systems to keep them running, Griffith said.

Like Chuathbaluk, seven other community-wide sanitation systems started long ago are projected to be finished in the next three years, including Hooper Bay, with 1,100 residents.

That would leave more than 30 "underserved" villages -- such as Kipnuk, Kivalina and Chefornak -- without a community-wide system. In those villages, about half the homes are stuck on the old honeybucket system, with residents using five-gallon buckets for toilet and dumping them at disposal sites in town.

New approach

Those villages are last on the list for a variety of reasons. They may lack a good source for water or a good spot for a sewage lagoon. Some are so small they don't have the ratepayer base to cover basic costs. Some villages are becoming more spread out as families move away from eroding areas, making it harder to serve the whole village, said Griffith.

To address those problems, the state is trying a new approach for bringing them piped water and sewer. Starting with $1 million in seed money -- set aside by the Alaska Legislature this year -- the Village Safe Water program plans to pay for research and development for systems that serve one household at a time.

These "decentralized" sanitation units would likely combine "water treatment and recycling technology" to reduce water hauling and "minimize the amount of sewage that needs to be treated or hauled away," said Griffith in an email.

By the end of this year, the state plans to announce its effort, and start looking for engineering teams from around the world that can develop gray water systems to withstand Alaska's subzero swings yet still be affordable.

The goal is reducing health problems in homes without running water and sewer. Those include much higher rates of respiratory tract illnesses and pneumococcal infections in children under 5, the state said in a press release on Friday announcing Chuathbaluk's new system.

'Huge difference'

The village's modern, underground system will serve more than 50 homes and buildings, including the school. In the past, villagers hauled five-gallon honeybuckets of human waste to dump sites. They collected water at several collection points. It was high in iron and manganese and tasted bad.

“The community is really excited about getting these projects completed,” said Jim Smith, Chuathbaluk mayor, in the release. “Most people take getting water from a faucet and flushing a toilet for granted -- but out here it makes a huge difference in our quality of life."

Examples of some gray water systems exist in such places as Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia. Time will tell if they or something similar can be modified to address rural Alaska's sanitation hurdles.

Contract Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com