The Arctic Sounder

City of Kotzebue discusses improving the water treatment plant

Kotzebue City officials discussed plans to improve the water treatment plant, which has been distributing brown-colored water to residents in recent months.

There are several reasons why Kotzebue residents have been receiving discolored water, city and state officials said in recent meetings.

The raw water feeding the plant has had more than twice the amount of manganese, a naturally occurring element found in soil, water and air, said Cindy Christian, program manager at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, during the city council meeting last week.

“The manganese levels in the source water this year have been worse than they have ever been before,” Christian said. “It could have something to do with the permafrost melting.”

Chase Nelson, a civil engineer at a consulting firm DOWL, said that the issue is especially critical from late winter to early spring when the water is covered by ice and doesn’t get oxygen. With ice melting, the water quality should improve, but since the storage tanks of the water treatment plant are large, the change takes time.

Additionally, the manganese levels are significantly higher than those that were expected during the design of the water treatment plant, according to the presentation the city broadcasted earlier this month.

“The plant is struggling with removing iron and manganese to a level we need,” Nelson said.


In April, the city posted a note stating that, for several days that month, manganese levels were above the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory of 0.3 milligrams per liter for infants under 6 months old.

While manganese is commonly found in food and drinking water, too much manganese can increase the risk of health problems, particularly for infants under 6 months old, Infants are more at risk than older children and adults because their brains and bodies are quickly developing, city officials explained in the statement.

As a result, the city recommended not giving tap water to infants and not using it in the formula.

The concern is strictly for infants, city officials emphasized, since adults can handle higher levels of manganese.

As a precaution, the city doesn’t recommend residents to cook with tap water or use it for ice and making drinks, Christian said.

As a short-term solution for families with infants, Maniilaq is considering distributing home water filtration units that will remove manganese.

In the long term, the city is working to improve the water plant’s filtration system.

The city met with designers and contractors on May 29 to make a plan for addressing the issue.

An engineering consultant firm, Tetra Tech, is now designing a way to add another filtration step to the system. The Swalling General Contractors are estimating the cost of the work. Construction is expected to start in the fall, the city said.

“The hope is that we can implement some longer-term solutions by this winter,” Nelson said.

The city is in the process of identifying funding sources.

“Regardless of where funding comes from, the city will move forward with design and construction,” city officials said.

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.