Rural Alaska

Infrastructure bill holds promise for many of rural Alaska’s most pressing needs, say Murkowski and others

Rural Alaskans living without dependable indoor plumbing may have running water in the near future. Those struggling with slow, intermittent internet may find themselves soon surfing the web with ease. And residents living on the edge of eroding land may be one step closer to relocating to a safe home.

These are just some of the promises being offered as Alaska lawmakers and administrators begin to unpack the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed last week.

The act invests more than $11 billion into Native communities to build water and sanitation infrastructure, expand broadband, improve tribal transportation and help communities adapt to a warming climate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said. The measure was supported by Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“There is so much in this bill that will impact the quality of life in a positive way,” Murkowski said. “It’s everything from safe drinking water and water systems, to roads, to broadband, to really making sure that there is a level of connection that is recognized.”

Bringing running water to rural Alaska

The bill provides $3.5 billion for Indian Health Services sanitation facilities, which can help bring running water and flushed toilets to more Alaska communities.

“When it comes to water and wastewater, we know that we have far too many communities that have no existing systems: they do not have running water, they do not have a flush sanitary wastewater system,” Murkowski said. “This will be an opportunity for them to have new infrastructure ‒ to have infrastructure for the very first time.”

The infrastructure bill also authorized $230 million for the federal Alaskan Native Villages Grant Program to support communities with new and improved wastewater and drinking water systems. About 245 Alaska communities are eligible for the program and some villages already benefited from it in the past.

The program has been helping Kotzebue to build a new water treatment plant that will comply with the drinking water standards, according to the report from the Environmental Protection Agency that manages the program. For Buckland, the program funded a multi-year project that brought water and sewer systems to the homes of Buckland residents for the first time.

Before receiving the grant, Buckland residents hauled water each day from the water treatment plant and used honey buckets. The waste, dumped outside of Buckland homes in winter, would spread around with spring seasonal floods.

While Buckland residents now have piped water and toilets in their homes, that’s not the case for every Alaska community.

In Interior Alaska, there are at least 13 villages that don’t have water and sewer systems, Tanana Chiefs Conference Chief PJ Simon said.

“With the ongoing pandemic, a lot of these individuals, our Native people, do not have a 100% access to a water-sewer (system) to cleanse themselves, which could lead to water-washed diseases and other illnesses,” Simon said. “The bill will allow our Elders, our culture bearers, to live longer to give us more guidance through this pandemic.”

The bill offers yet another funding source for communities to construct public wastewater facilities and wastewater treatment systems — more than $180 million through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund programs.

Murkowski said that much of the funding is coming through formula funds, using programs that are already in place, but, with the help of the bill, now have increased available funding.

“With increased funds, it may be that the communities in the region may now be able to be next on the list with the grant programs that will come forward — an opportunity to participate where you haven’t before,” Murkowski said.

Helping communities relocate

With funds for climate change resilience, the bill can help relocate Alaska villages threatened by thinning ice, thawing permafrost and flooding — a combined threat known in Yupik as usteq.

With $216 million for tribal climate resilience, adaptation, and community relocation, the legislation “provides a significant investment in climate resilience to protect and strengthen rural Alaska communities, which are among those most impacted by climate change,” Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said in a statement.

Of 187 of Alaska’s remote communities, around 93 are affected by “usteq” and 35 are in imminent danger from it — including Shaktoolik, Shishmaref and Kivalina, which rank highest for the threat, according to the 2019 assessment by the Denali Commission.

The village of Kivalina has been looking at relocation options in the last couple of years, said Millie Hawley, tribal administrator for Kivalina IRA Council. They completed building an emergency evacuation road — a longtime project — that will help residents escape a potential flood from the ocean side.

How quickly these dollars will be put into action depends on many factors. Alaska geography and weather can slow down construction and completion of future projects, Murkowski acknowledged.

“If you are a new project, if you’re a new start,” she said, “you might not see these coming to your village as soon as you might want.”

However, Murkowski said that if the projects are already started, they might be “more immediately teed up” than those that are just getting started.

“If you are a community that is threatened — say, Shishmaref or Mertarvik, where they are already in the process of moving — the ability to access some of these funds may come more readily, ‘’ Murkowski said.

Connecting villages to the internet

The last year and a half highlighted what it means to not be connected to the internet. Without reliable connections, students couldn’t join online classes, employees couldn’t work from home and patients couldn’t talk to their doctor through telehealth.

“Where there is no broadband infrastructure, we saw an immediate impact,” said Christine O’Connor, executive director for Alaska Telecom Association. “If you don’t have a connection, you’re just limited in so many ways in the world we are living in.”

The infrastructure bill provides a minimal allocation of $100 million in grants to each state to deploy broadband, dedicating $600 million for states to issue private activity bonds for deployment in rural areas.

“It’s got a significant amount of funding for broadband, especially for unserved communities,” O’Connor said. “It can be greatly beneficial for Alaska.”

Some places in Alaska have no internet at all, and some communities with only limited access are considered unserved. As of this summer, 249 Alaska villages and towns lacked internet speeds suitable for real-time applications, according to a report the State of Alaska Governor’s Task Force on Broadband released in November.

Providing broadband to rural Alaska requires not only working in harsh terrain and extreme weather conditions; it also means using various types of technology, explained Jenifer Nelson, senior manager for GCI Rural Affairs.

“The biggest challenge is, it’s really expensive,” Nelson said. “Alaska is vast, communities are very small,” and it can be hard “to make a business case work.”

The infrastructure bill authorized another $1 billion for Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure grants, which is critical for connecting Alaska communities, according to Heather Marron, manager of corporate communications with Alaska Communications.

“Middle mile is the segment of the network linking our core network to the rural area providing the backhaul,” Marron explained. “Bridging the digital divide requires long-term investment, including investing in accessible and affordable middle-mile infrastructure.”

Both Nelson and Marron said that GCI and Alaska Communications look forward to working with communities to expand services.

A lot of planning still needs to happen before the change arrives in the communities, but the bill will accelerate a multitude of projects already in progress and will help put together partnerships between providers and communities, O’Connor said.

“We are not expecting the funding to land in Alaska for up to 2 years,” O’Connor said. She added that “It’s really exciting that we already have a lot of momentum and that bill will just triple-charge it.”

The bill makes $2 billion more available through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program, directed to tribal governments for local broadband deployment, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability and digital inclusion.

“Not only do we have $2 billion that is directed to tribal broadband connectivity, but we also have a set-aside program to award grants or enter into contracts with tribes, Alaska Native entities,” Murkowski said.

Supporting Alaska tribes

The infrastructure bill offers significant funding opportunities for Alaska Native tribes — “tribal set-asides,” Murkowski said.

In addition to money for sanitation facilities and deploying broadband on tribal lands, $3 billion will go to the federal Tribal Transportation Program, and $2.5 billion to address approved Indian water rights settlements.

Simon said funding for environmental cleanup, ports, airports, roads, climate change, high-speed internet and clean drinking water “really addresses the need out there in rural Alaska.”

“There is so much need, tremendous need,” he said. “And this is a wonderful start to help out our First Nations people.”

NANA Regional Corp., representing tribes in Northwest Alaska, plans to work with regional leaders to find funding opportunities in the bill. They hope that “federal and state agencies (will) provide clear guidance on how best to secure and maximize the impact of these funds for all Alaskans,” said NANA’s president and CEO John Lincoln.

“Now the tough work begins of ensuring our communities are competitive in the pursuit of project funding,” he said, “and preparing our operating companies to do our part in moving Alaska and our region forward.”

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