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Rural Alaska

3 weeks later, state still hasn’t provided disaster relief funds for Tuluksak water crisis

  • Author: Olivia Ebertz, KYUK Public Media
  • Updated: February 7
  • Published February 7

Tuluksak's water plant burned Jan. 16, 2021. (Photo by Kristy Napoka)

This story was originally published by KYUK Public Media in Bethel.

It’s been three weeks since a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of drinking water. Since then, the village has been living on donations of bottled water that have come from activists, a gold mining company, and even an Indigenous rapper from the pop-rap group the Black Eyed Peas. But noticeably absent have been supplies from the state government. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has yet to declare a state-level disaster to address Tuluksak’s water crisis. In doing so, he’s holding back up to $1 million in disaster relief funding for the village.

State Legislators who represent Tuluksak say that say they’re working on the issue. Sen. Lyman Hoffman said that he is looking at options to pay for the long-term response to the crisis. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said that the House can’t do much right now since it’s currently unorganized, and that the governor should declare a state disaster. “The sphere of influence related to the circumstances in the village of Tuluksak and its water crisis is most influenced by the administration and the executive branch’s ability to move the disaster request forward within its own process,” said Zulkosky.

Zulkosky told KYUK that she has contacted Dunleavy’s office multiple times in recent weeks, asking him to declare a disaster and to send in the National Guard. When asked if the governor’s office had replied, Zulkosky said, “I have not heard a response from the governor’s office on my inquiries related to National Guard support, whether they’ve pursued unspent CARES [Act] funding that have been provided to the state, or anything related to that issue and Tuluksak.

KYUK also contacted the governor’s office, which put us in touch with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said that although the division has not donated supplies, it can provide relief to Tuluksak without a disaster declaration.

Jeremy Zidek: In order to respond to emergencies in Alaska, we don’t need a disaster declaration. We don’t need the disaster declaration to provide water to folks.

KYUK: So I guess I’m just curious if the state has a capability to send water without any sort of disaster declaration. How come they didn’t?

Zidek: Well, one of the one of the requests that we had from Tuluksak was that they didn’t have access to fresh, er, the requests that we had from Tuluksak were that they didn’t have access to potable water. So our primary concern was restoring that access.

Meaning, rather than giving Tuluksak fresh drinking water, they coordinated with private citizens and other agencies to make sure that water bottles could be flown or driven in. Zidek said that part of the division’s job is to make sure that if the community can’t respond to the emergency, someone else does, like nonprofits or private companies, but not necessarily the state itself.

He said that a gubernatorial disaster declaration is more for a long term approach to recovery. State government likely won’t need to respond in the long term in this case, since the tribe has already filed a grant request for a permanent water plant and washateria with the federal Indian Health Service.

KYUK: Okay, so it’s really not for a short term response.

Zidek: That’s correct.

Zidek said that his division is writing a report on the water crisis to send to the governor’s Disaster Policy Cabinet, after which the cabinet could recommend that the governor declare a disaster. The governor could then release up to $1 million in relief funds without legislative approval. Zidek didn’t say when, or if, this would happen.

In an email, Rep. Zulkosky said, “If any larger community in Alaska was without reliable access to water during a global public health crisis, it is almost certain a disaster would be declared.” She also said that Alaskans who live in Tuluksak deserve just as much access to state emergency resources as Alaskans in other communities.

Here’s a list from the Legislative Finance Division of all the instances where disaster relief funding has been provided in the last 10 years:

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