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Grudgingly slow, rural Alaska's honeybuckets are getting retired

Suzanna Caldwell
Sewer line in Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Washateria, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Well head, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Above-ground insulated water pipe, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Above-ground insulated pipes, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Honey bucket hopper, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Honey bucket hopper and basketball hoop, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Honey bucket hopper and basketball hoop, Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo
Community watering point in Atmautluak, 2006.
State of Alaska photo

In the village of Kwethluk, running water has been a long time coming.

Slowly, over the last 20 years, the Yup'ik community of about 700, located at the confluence of the Kuskokwim and Kwethluk rivers in southwest Alaska, has moved away from hauling water and using honey buckets rather than flush toilets.

Now residents in the village of about 150 homes are getting a bit of help in the bid to provide adequate water and sanitation. Kwethluk is one of 16 villages across the state benefiting from a $29-million Rural Alaska Village Grant (RAVG) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program. The program, established in the mid-90s by former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, is intended to move rural Alaska villages out of third-world sanitation systems. A list of villages receiving funding this year can be found here.

David Epchook, Kwethluk city manager, noted that the funding has been a slow and steady process, arriving in phases over the last two decades.

“(The current grant) sounds like a large chunk of money, but it's only for part of the construction that has already been in place for two decades,” he said.

Still, Epchook said, the money coming into the community not only will provide clean water, but long-time jobs, too. “It will have an impact on the economy,” he said, “but more importantly the community will gain a structure for the future.”

Working with the community

The grant funds are administered through three different entities -- local hub communities such as the towns of Kotzebue or Bethel, the state, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).

“They're essentially leads for all the smaller, rural communities,” said Tasha Deardorff, RAVG program manager, “Those entities work closely with communities, building a rapport and trust.”

The consortium received the bulk of the program's grants, totaling about $22.5 million for both construction and planning. Many of the communities getting help are in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of Alaska's most economically depressed regions.

Matt Dixon, vice president of operations for consortium’s division of environmental health and engineering, said that while his organization has developed a points-based program to determine which communities get funding, residents then figure out exactly what they need.

For example, a city using only honey buckets receives more points than a city with a washateria and some plumbing. Honey buckets are five-gallon plastic pails many rural Alaskans use as toilets, hauling them out and dumping them into nearby waste lagoons.

The program also works with the community to determine what kind of water and waste system should be brought in -- and when. Dixon said sometimes flush and haul tanks are a better option than a complicated water system that requires serious upkeep and specialized training.

“Nobody knows what it's like to live in the community like the community members do,” he said.

In 1995, former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles promised to help end the era of the honey bucket in rural Alaska. Seventeen years later, the honey bucket remains -- but it’s slowly vanishing. Success stories are cropping up across the state. Goodnews Bay, about 100 miles south of Bethel, recently finished a pipe and sewer system using Rural Alaska Village Grant funds. Kasiglok and Kwigillingok received flush and haul tanks recently, too.

Rural challenges

But there's still more to be done. Dixon said about 20 percent of rural Alaska homes -- about 6,000 total -- lack access to water and sewer services, which typically help village residents stay far healthier.

A host of problems stem from poor access to water and sewer, Dixon said. Respiratory disease, gastrointestinal illness, the dangerous bacterial infection MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and others. Hospitalization rates for people living without adequate water and sewer systems can be at least 10 times higher. And that's just the hospital rate, Dixon noted. The total number of people getting sick is probably much higher.

Villages receiving assistance through this year's grant program probably won't be able to turn on the taps until at least 2014. The construction seasons are short and challenging in most villages, Dixon said. Just getting construction supplies on site can be a challenge.

Epchook, the Kwethluk city manager, said heavy rains this season caused erosion on the main sewer line that will have to be assessed before other lines are connected.

Kids lining up

In Quinhagak, another village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta receiving a federal grant, Steve Munn said the differences between homes with and without running water are dramatic. The school principal reports fewer incidents of lice and other infections. When Munn, on-site project manager for the city's water and sewer, goes to homes to connect water lines, the children literally line up at the door, ready to hop into the tub once he’s finished.

“Everyone is very happy with the system,” he said. “There are lots of smiles and thank yous.”

The new funding will allow Quinhagak to connect about 20 more homes to the water and sewer system. Still, it's been an eight-year process to connect the 115 houses to the water and sewer system, and after latest additions there still will be about 35 homes without in the community of 700 people.   

“There are remarkable differences in the homes that have it versus the ones that still don't have it,” he said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com