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Succession of storms doesn't give Kivalina a break to fix water pipe

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Peter Law photo

It appears that for now residents of the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina have lost the water race against time. City officials have fought for weeks to get the remote city’s water tanks filled, working hard to get the school open and water running before cold weather set in.

An August flood damaged the water pipe usually used for this task. While school did open last week after the tanks had begun to fill and water was turned on at the school, Mother Nature threw in another hurdle before the project could be completed.

Yet another fall storm brought back high waters last week to the Arctic village, said Kivilina City Administrator Janet Mitchell, and the equipment needed to expedite the job came a little too late.

A long-awaited high-powered pump arrived last Tuesday. It would allow residents to pump 120 gallons per minute, which prevents icing in the lines. Mitchell was eager to speed the slow process before cold weather hit.

“We don’t have much of an opportunity to fill the tanks now once it starts to freeze up,” Mitchell said last week. “The Homeland guys said we may have till the end of this month.”

But Monday brought a windstorm and brief snow flurries, a reminder of the cold weather approaching. It also brought in a very high tide, Mitchell said. The pump arrived after they had already paused operations to wait for the high water to recede.

“Well, the tide went down and the temperature dropped immediately the next day, Wednesday,” Mitchell said, “causing our pipes to slush up immediately. The guys tried flushing out the slush by taking apart the pipes (Wednesday), but it didn't work.”

Mitchell explained the need for a quicker pumping process, wary of a domino effect should progress slow, or stop, preventing them from filling the tanks. First the school, then the clinic and entire community -- along with anyone visiting Kivalina -- will all be affected.

As of the end of last week, the raw tank had more than 14 feet of water, the treated tank had 11. Puddles in town were freezing over.

“We are going to have to conserve water drastically, including the school,” Mitchell said.

She sent an email out to the various organizations and state departments that have been helping Kivalina during the disaster, imploring leaders and officials to brainstorm and find a way to keep Kivalina afloat.

“We all have to think HUGE here,” Mitchell said in the email. “We have to serve the school, the clinic and the public. What can we do to prevent running out besides conservation? We can’t keep cutting off the community from the water in terms of washeteria, which we do every year in February. They have every right to water too and they pay more then the school does in terms of water usage.”

The February cutoff is how the community has conserved water in the past, getting the school through the year.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com.