The Arctic Sounder

Dozens of Kotzebue houses have no running water since a water main failed last week

About 60 households in Kotzebue continue to experience water shortages after a water main failed last week.

Kotzebue was among the communities that experienced a cold snap in recent weeks. Temperatures reached minus 50 degrees, which led to a large-scale freeze-up of the Swan Lake water main loop, according to the Northwest Arctic Borough. Subsequent blockage and bursts in the line around Feb. 5 led to dozens of houses losing water service, according to a statement from the City of Kotzebue. The exact cause of the breakage is still unclear, the city officials added.

The Swan Lake water main line, which is more than 40 years old, is the city’s largest water main and services 190 homes, or about 700 to 800 people, City Manager Tessa Baldwin said.

On Feb. 8, the city reported more than 40 of those homes had no running water. Four days later, half of the line was still frozen, and even more homes were without water, according to the city.

“We have about 56 homes that are completely without running water,” Baldwin said during an emergency City Council meeting on Feb. 12. “It’s been reported that some of them have some frozen sewer lines.”

The rest of the houses on the water main are currently on a boil water notice until the issue subsides and “are experiencing some type of water distress due to the break in demand,” Baldwin said.

“Access to clean, safe water is essential to the health and safety of our residents. Lack of such water causes this to be a serious, life-threatening public health issue,” Baldwin said in a letter to the borough mayor.


In addition to threatening the health and well-being of residents in their homes, the failure has been also affecting the flow on Swan Lake Loop fire hydrants and challenging the local fire department’s ability to respond to potential emergencies, Baldwin said.

“The City of Kotzebue fire department has had to make alternative plans to respond to any potential fires on this service line due to the lack of water on the frozen water main,” Baldwin said.

As a result of the water main failure, the city declared an emergency disaster on Feb. 8. The borough mayor Dickie Motto also declared an emergency the same day and requested additional funds from the state to address the issue.

“The state actually has to declare a disaster first, before they start providing any financial support,” Baldwin said. “The state is currently filing paperwork in terms of an emergency response plan.”

Several local organizations — including the city, borough, Native Village of Kotzebue, NANA, Maniilaq Association and OTZ Telecommunications — created an emergency operations team to respond to the disaster declaration.

During their first meeting on Tuesday, organizations volunteered to provide more truck drivers to deliver water and discussed providing showers to community members. The city expects to release a full list of services available later this week, Baldwin said.

To fix the blockage, the public works department is working with a contractor to excavate the water loop — a process that’s challenging because of the hard-frozen clay ground, said Public Works Director Russ Ferguson.

The city is looking for more ground thaw units and has converted some of its equipment to be able to get into the pipes and start thawing out the ice as soon as they are uncovered, Ferguson said.

“In the meantime, we’ve hired local contractors to go around and start thawing out the service lines in people’s homes,” he said. “Right now they’re starting with two houses.”

The city — as well as several other organizations such as Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp. and Native Village of Kotzebue — has also been delivering water to affected residents on Swan lake Loop. The city hired more drivers to deliver water to residents. The water treatment plant has extended hours for residents to receive water.

The 14,000-foot-long Swan Lake water loop has been slated to be replaced for several years by the city council, but the cost of the replacement is about $14 million, Baldwin said.

“It’s been a priority for the city for a long time,” Baldwin said. “But for any local municipality, it’s hard to receive dollars to replace infrastructure like this. And so the plan is that we’re going to continue prioritizing this and our federal and state requests for capital projects.”

In 1990, the Swan Lake water loop loop froze up for four months, from January through April, Ferguson said.

While Ferguson didn’t say when the city will be able to fix the loop this time, he said it should take less than four months.

To report a loss of water service, the city encouraged residents to call dispatch at 907-224-3351 or the city at 907-442-3401.

“If you have water,” Baldwin asked, “continuously run your water to ensure that the section that you’re on does not freeze.”

The city also encouraged residents who are experiencing damage to their homes because of the sewer backing up to file a claim through their insurance company.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the city would reimburse the cost of thawing out water and sewer lines.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.