Rural Alaska

Tuluksak desperate for a source of drinking water almost 2 weeks after fire destroyed water plant

It’s been almost two weeks since the Tuluksak water plant burned down, leaving the Southwest Alaska village without clean, locally sourced drinking water.

For now, residents are making do with bottled water delivered by plane, hauling water or ice several miles from the Kuskokwim River and using water from the nearby Tuluksak River to wash clothes and dishes. It rained in Tuluksak over the weekend and Melony Allain, the village’s tribal administrator, said she collected the rainwater to use for her family’s water supply.

Allain said she’s afraid — the village has yet to find a long-term replacement for the water plant, and the safest option, bottled water, can take days to reach the village by plane because of weather delays.

Without running water, the school has not been able to operate, and Allain fears residents will become sick from drinking contaminated water.

“I’m really concerned for my community,” she said.

Tuluksak is roughly 35 miles northwest of Bethel. The population of about 360 is mostly Alaska Native.

On Jan. 16, the village’s water plant — which filtered and treated well water and included a laundromat — burned for more than four hours. There is no fire department in Tuluksak, so residents hauled water from the river by snowmachine in an attempt to stop the flames. Despite their efforts, the plant was a complete loss. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

The village has experienced one setback after another, Allain said.

Tuluksak has been grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 in recent weeks. The man who usually plows the airport runway was evacuated to Anchorage because of a severe case, she said. Usually he would have arranged for someone else to take charge of the plowing, but because of his deteriorating health he did not.

A layer of snow and ice coated the airstrip in the days after the fire, which prevented deliveries of bottled water.

The man managed to leave plow keys with someone in Bethel before he was hospitalized, Allain said. Then the keys had to make their way back to Tuluksak. Allain said it was several days before the runway was plowed.

The first shipment of bottled water finally reached the village four days after the fire.

“The very first batch that was sent was only 20 cases and that was prioritized to elders and those with babies,” Allain said. “And those were finished before we could even give other people water.”

Weather has delayed several other flights intended to bring in bottled water, but Allain said Monday morning that the tribal council was distributing cases that had recently arrived.

An online fundraising effort got bottled water and supplies shipped to the community, Allain said. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. also has been working to deliver bottled water to the village, said president and CEO Dan Winkelman.

Temperatures in Southwest Alaska rose above freezing over the weekend, allowing residents to collect rainwater in addition to filling containers with water or ice from the Kuskokwim River for drinking.

Winkelman said the water needs to be boiled before it is safe to drink.

But not everyone in the community has a snowmachine or vehicle to reach the Kuskokwim River, Allain said. She fears some residents will resort to collecting water from the closer Tuluksak River, which is not safe to drink and has previously made residents sick.

“I’m really, really, really hoping nobody else drinks the water, because some might not even have a choice,” she said.

More than a third of the village has contracted COVID-19, and infection rates in other villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region have been spiking. Allain said all three of Tuluksak’s postmasters are unable to work because of the virus, so mail is piling up. She said council members have helped scan packages so residents can pick up mail.

State and federal agencies are working with the village to provide disaster relief funds, Winkelman said. The health corporation is giving the tribe technical assistance. State, federal and local leaders had a meeting last week to create a short-term plan, Winkelman said.

There are several options, although each has drawbacks.

The health corporation has a water plant previously used for the long-term care center at the Bethel hospital; it could be moved to Tuluksak to provide a “medium-term solution,” said Brian Lefferts, director of the health corporation’s Office of Environmental Health & Engineering.

But the equipment is big and heavy. It would need to be moved from Bethel by truck on a recently opened ice road. On Monday, the ice was about 16 inches thick, but it would need to be about double that to support the load, Lefferts said.

Another option would use a cartridge filter to get water from the Tuluksak River and bring it into the school pipes so there could be running water for toilets and fire protection, and residents could go there to wash clothing. That water would not be drinkable.

The third option is to use one of two nearby wells nearby to provide drinking water, Lefferts said. Officials need to determine what pretreatment might be needed. Winkelman said there are problems with both wells, including high iron levels, low flow and a lack of a heated tank to keep the water from freezing.

The health corporation will meet Tuesday afternoon with officials from Tuluksak and federal and state organizations to decide which option is best.

The Tuluksak Tribal Council recently passed an emergency declaration, Allain said, the first step in a list of technicalities required before the village can start to receive financial assistance.

Lefferts said it’s difficult to pin down when even a short-term solution could be up and running in the village.

“It’s tough to put a real accurate timeline together and I’d hate to promise something we weren’t able to do,” he said. “We just want to do it as quick as possible, is our goal right now.”

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