The Arctic Sounder

State declares an emergency for Kotzebue water service interruptions

As the Swan Lake Loop failure keeps dozens of Kotzebue residents without water, the state declared a disaster emergency for the city and Northwest Arctic Borough last week.

The blockage and bursts in the city’s largest water main happened around Feb. 5 and affected 190 homes — or about 700 people, City Manager Tessa Baldwin said. As of Tuesday morning, 61 Kotzebue homes still had frozen water lines and 24 sewer lines were frozen — an increase from the numbers last week.

For those on the loop who did not lose service, the city issued a boil-water notice, Baldwin said.

Additionally, at least one person reported that their service lines broke, and another, that sewer water backed up in their home and ruined their carpeting, city officials said during a Tuesday meeting about the water service interruptions.

It was not immediately clear how long the repairs would take, but several local officials said last week that it might take several months.

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

As a result of the failure, the city and the Northwest Arctic Borough declared an emergency disaster on Feb. 8. Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a disaster emergency for the city and Northwest Arctic Borough on Feb. 14.


“The disaster declaration enables the mobilization of state resources, including emergency personnel, equipment and financial assistance, to address the immediate consequences of the water main failure,” said a city statement.

The Native Village of Kotzebue, the city’s Public Works Department, NANA and other entities have been delivering water, both potable and non-potable, to those who lost water service, Baldwin said. The deliveries continued over the weekend and on Presidents Day.

The state is also working on ordering 30-gallon collapsible water bladders for drinking water for affected households.

During a meeting Friday, local officials discussed more sustainable solutions. One idea was to set up an RV-like water system with a 200-gallon holding tank and a pressurized pump system where the water could be delivered.

Residents without water access can use temporary shower facilities at the high school gym. The city and Maniilaq Association were also working to set up a laundry facility but did not expect it to be operational until the middle of next week at the earliest, said Maniilaq Vice President Charlie Nelson.

The city also identified a need for sanitation products for homes that don’t have running water and sewer service. Using a portion of the borough’s village improvement fund, local officials started ordering trash bags, honey buckets, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer.

As for the repairs, the city discussed the need to order or borrow from residents and other communities’ ground thaw equipment and jetters.

As of Friday, contractors were thawing out the ground at the portion of that loop that froze up — the last 7,000 feet of the 14,000-foot-long loop.

“As part of the repairs to this line, we are anticipating that there may be a spot or two where we dig up the main that might actually introduce any frozen ice particles that have been dirt-contaminated,” Public Works Director Russ Ferguson said. “If that happens, we will issue a ‘Do not drink water’ notice.”

Meanwhile, local officials asked people on the Swan Lake Loop to flush 1 cup of salt down their toilets every day to bring the salinity up and decrease the chance of it freezing, Ferguson said.

While the city and other entities are now focused on addressing the immediate needs of the residents and “putting Band-Aids on a loop that is 40 years old,” according to Baldwin, their goal in the long run is to replace the Swan Lake Loop. On Thursday, the city will review a resolution for the planning and design of the loop’s replacement.

“Our long-term goal is obviously going to do the replacement of this loop and lagoon loop, which our hospital sits on. It is also in a dilapidated state, and so we are just racing for time on that one,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to take several years to replace this loop.”

Correction: The previous version of the story incorrectly stated the number of houses with frozen 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.