The Arctic Sounder

North Slope Borough plans to bring the water and sewer system above ground

The North Slope Borough is considering moving the water and sewer system above ground in Utqiagvik and potentially other communities.

The borough is designing a pilot project to connect about 27 houses in Utqiagvik through an above-ground water and sewer system, said Scott Danner, director of the borough’s Department of Public Works. These houses are now not connected to the water and sewer system, he said.

“It gives us a chance to get familiar with the above-ground system,” Danner said. “It’s a chance to try something new.”

Utqiagvik residents became connected to the water and sewer services for the first time in the mid-1980s, Danner said.

“We chose to go below ground,” primarily because of the preference for the system to be discreet, he said.

With the Arctic rapidly warming and permafrost thawing, the direct burial underground water and sewer system is failing, Danner said. The pipes are moving around and breaking more often, which leads to water leaks that are challenging and expensive to fix in the ground, Danner said.

“The permafrost is not going to heal itself. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” he said. “When we have leaks, it actually compounds the problem because it actually degrades the permafrost even more.”


As a result, Danner said he expects the borough will need to make a significant investment to replace the entire water and sewer system in all communities.

This is why the borough started the pilot project to bring a portion of the water and sewer system above ground, beginning this winter and through next year, he said.

“It’s going to be a change in how we do things,” Danner said. “For example, you won’t be able to drive your Ski-Doo across the neighbor’s property. ... You’re going to learn to access it from the road. ... It will be a different type of lifestyle, which is one of the reasons to do the pilot project and see if people can see firsthand what it’s going to look like.”

The preliminary cost estimate is not yet finalized but the borough expects it to be around $5 million, which would come from the capital budget, he said.

The borough staff has been exploring how the above-ground water and sewer systems have been serving other Alaska locations such as Bethel, Mountain Village, Kwethluk, Eek and Scammon Bay. They have been communicating with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. to learn how those systems have been performing.

One thing they learned was that the city of Bethel has been using the same system for more than 20 years without any major main water breaks, Danner said.

“We didn’t just jump into this,” Danner said. “It was exciting to hear from ATHC that we’re not the only ones facing these kinds of issues and that we’re not the only ones seeking solutions.”

When the borough spoke about the project during the assembly meeting earlier in May, assemblywoman Eva Kinneeveauk brought up a concern about the above-ground system not performing well in extreme cold. She said that in Selawik, where some houses have above-ground connections, residents regularly report frozen pipes. She said that while an above-ground system might be cost-effective, “it comes with the pros and cons.”

“I’m glad that some of the staff went to (the) Bethel area to take a look at what they have in place,” she said. “I hope (they will look) not only at Bethel but look elsewhere.”

Danner said that water lines don’t usually freeze because when water is pumped, it is constantly moving. However, waste lines can freeze when there is an ineffective heat trace — an electric or hydroponic system of heating pipes. In the pilot project, Danner said that the waste pipes would have an electric heat trace, or heat cable, wrapped around them, and then a layer of insulation would go on top, covering the whole pipe and keeping it from freezing.

“I’m confident this thing is better than what we’re doing now,” Danner said. “It’s either this on every house — which Bethel does — or return to honey buckets, which we’re pretty adamant about not doing.”


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.