Rural Alaska

Fires, deteriorating infrastructure and unusually cold weather strain rural Alaska’s already fragile water systems

In Unalakleet, the water that drips from home faucets is sometimes brown and sludgy, said Mayor Kira Eckenweiler. Residents haven’t felt safe drinking it for years, but in the last month, the situation has grown worse, she said.

Several mothers have reported the water is causing rashes on their infants. And the town’s old, corroded pipes have frozen so badly this winter that roughly 40 homes were without running water for about a month, Eckenweiler said.

“It’s really taken a toll on the whole community,” she said. “It’s really hard being out here with all this right now.”

Unalakleet is one of several villages in rural Alaska that have struggled to maintain water services in recent months. Remote locations and extreme weather make it challenging to repair water systems in rural Alaska, and the money available to make systems reliable is far short of what’s needed, officials said.

In Selawik, roughly 60 homes have been without running water for weeks. A Valentine’s Day power outage shut down the water treatment plant long enough for water lines to freeze. Although power has been restored, it’s unclear when all homes will have running water again.

In Tuluksak, the washeteria was destroyed in a January fire. It was the only building in the Southwest Alaska village with potable running water. Nearly two months later, the village has potable water in the school, although its challenges are far from over.

In Nenana, a water plant freeze-up that could have been disastrous was controlled in the nick of time, although the town endured a boil-water alert in February as the system was returned to normal.

‘We’re so tired of being afraid of our water’

The water treatment plant in Unalakleet was built in the 1960s, Eckenweiler said. The system has been steadily failing for 10 years, and boil-water notices have become a way of life in Unalakleet, she said.

The old pipes are coated inside with about a half-inch of grime and sludge, Eckenweiler said, which makes the water brown.

When pipes froze about a month ago, water stopped flowing into the storage tank from Powers Creek. Eckenweiler said water levels dropped alarmingly low.

Water started flowing again this week. Though the town remains on a boil-water notice, Eckenweiler said no one dares drink it even if it’s boiled. Residents use the water for cleaning, flushing the toilet, showering and doing the dishes. But with stored-water levels still low, Eckenweiler said, residents are conserving as much as possible.

“It’s tough. ... We don’t wash our dishes, we don’t wash our clothing as often, we don’t bathe as often, which has led to sicknesses, bedbug infestations and uncleanliness that really hasn’t helped, especially during COVID,” Eckenweiler said.

Norton Sound Health Corp. donated bottled water to homes without running water, and Eckenweiler said other residents fetched water from the Unalakleet River about 6 miles upriver, which had to be boiled before it was safe to drink.

Eckenweiler said she has been hauling her own water from a family member’s home. Several homes on the outskirts of Unalakleet have private wells with clean water, and Eckenweiler said some people have hauled water from there.

Buying bottled water isn’t feasible for most residents. Eckenweiler said a significant portion of the town lives below the poverty line and a 16-pack of bottled water can cost nearly $50.

Unalakleet declared a disaster locally at the end of February.

Attached is the City of Unalakleet's Disaster Declaration for our Water and Sewer System disaster. The City of...

Posted by City of Unalakleet on Friday, February 26, 2021

The age of the water system also makes it more challenging to thaw pipes, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“It has leaks in it. Normally what these water plants would do if they have cold temperatures and they’re kind of concerned or they have blockages in the line, what they’ll do is ramp up the pressure,” Zidek said. “But Unalakleet has an aging system, so ramping up the pressure may create additional leaks in the line.”

Within the next two years, Eckenweiler said, the plan is to pipe cleaner water from new groundwater wells on the outskirts of town into the existing water treatment plant. The city received funding for the new wells through the state’s Village Safe Water Program, but some of the work has been delayed because of the pandemic.

The new well water would still be distributed to homes through the old pipes, though.

Eckenweiler said replacing those pipes will likely cost millions of dollars — more than the village can afford. The town is working to obtain grant funding from state or federal agencies to make those repairs.

“Until we can get the whole system replaced, that’s the day I’ll finally start drinking water from our taps,” she said.

“We’re so tired of dealing with our water, our bad water, and we’re so tired of being afraid of our water.”

‘A constant uphill battle’

Carrie Bohan, who oversees several water programs within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said employees from the Rural Maintenance Worker program respond to 50 to 60 water emergencies a year.

Water systems in rural communities face a set of challenges unlike any on the road system. Bohan said it’s challenging to bring in construction materials to remote areas and construction seasons are dependent on weather.

“In northwestern communities or Western Alaska communities, we have situations where materials are delivered via barge, but there may only be three or four barges a year,” she said. “And if if things don’t follow a very strict time frame, you can lose an entire construction season simply by not being able to get materials on the barge.

“On the flip side, sometimes construction activities can only take place when the ground is frozen because of the challenges of working in tundra and permafrost situations. And so those also require special engineering, to be able to design facilities and buildings that are going to be able to to last in those environments.”

Bohan said roughly $100 million, 75% of which is from federal funds and 25% from the state, goes toward improvements for rural water systems each year, but it’s far short of what’s needed.

“That is right around $1.8 billion for both putting in pipe service to the unpiped communities and then to do needed upgrades or repairs to the existing,” she said. “One hundred million sounds like a substantial amount of money, but compared to the overall need, it’s a constant uphill battle to just address the needs.”

Short-term solutions

In Selawik, crews have been installing two watering points for residents on the west side of the village who’ve been without running water since the February outage froze pipes.

Power has since been restored, but continuing cold has made it challenging to thaw the pipes, said Zidek. It’s unclear when water may flow to those homes again.

“The big issue that they’re encountering is that they’re still facing some severe weather,” Zidek said. “And they don’t want to put work crews out in extreme cold temperatures — you’re exposing those workers to dangerous conditions and they’re not really sure if that’s going to do much good to try to get out there and thaw out these lines when it’s still extremely cold out.”

Zidek said the city’s immediate needs are being met for the time being and there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage from the freeze.

“With maintenance and better weather they may be able to restore things,” Zidek said. “And that’s a great scenario.”

In Tuluksak, residents recently got access to potable running water for the first time since the washeteria burned down in mid-January.

Residents collected ice or buckets of water from the Kuskokwim River several miles outside town. Water from the closer Tuluksak River was not safe to drink, officials said. The village received bottled water from the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., online donations and the state.

The health corporation constructed a reverse osmosis water system in the community’s school that became functional last week. The system draws water into the school from the Tuluksak River, filters and treats it before distributing it around the school, the health corporation said on social media. The school will now act as a temporary station where residents can draw buckets of water for drinking, cleaning and washing clothing.

Residents of Tuluksak can fill their water bottles with drinking water from a new reverse osmosis system installed by...

Posted by Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation on Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The health corporation is working with the city officials and federal agencies to move a water system into the town from Bethel to provide a more stable medium-term solution. The long-term solution will be to build a new washeteria. Much of the project is anticipated to be funded through the Indian Health Services.

In Nenana, a malfunctioning garage door at the water treatment plant led to frozen and burst pipes in early February. Community members stepped in to help with repairs and the city was able to restore water service without further damage. The town has been planning for major repairs to its old water system this year.

In Angoon, pipes froze and burst throughout town in early February, leaving the Southeast Alaska village of about 400 without water. The U.S. Coast Guard delivered bottled water to the residents and repairs have since been made to the mainline.

In Chevak, water and power lines were disrupted this week after a fire that destroyed the Southwest Alaska town’s former school early Monday. Two men were still missing after the fire, although troopers said no human remains had been found.

Power outages followed the fire, causing some water and sewer lines to freeze. Some pipes were also damaged by falling debris during the fire. Crews were working on repairs Wednesday and anticipated the mainline would be fixed by Friday, although it may take longer to thaw other frozen lines.

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