Acknowledging progress against the honey bucket in rural Alaska

In her Alaska Dispatch News commentary published Dec. 2, "Ridding Alaska of honey buckets is a good but all too familiar goal," Elise Patkotak paints a bleak picture of the sanitary conditions in rural Alaska, which is true, because many village residents still must haul water and use honey buckets. However, in other villages, sanitary systems have been installed and health conditions are improving. So is the glass half full of dirty water or clean water? A little more information will help the readers decide.

Before demonstrating how much sanitary conditions have improved across rural Alaska, I'd like to relate a story, though not as personal as the experience Patkotak had in Barrow 40 years ago. In January this year, the head of our agency, Patrice Kunesh (who is Lakota and grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation), traveled from Washington, D.C., to visit rural Alaska villages and make significant funding announcements.

Among the villages Kunesh visited along with USDA StrikeForce National Coordinator Max Finberg was Kwethluk, and she shared her experience: "Upon inviting me into her spotlessly clean house, a 90-year-old woman embraced me, then wept and apologized for the stench of the overflowing 'honey bucket,' sitting imposingly in her tiny bathroom. In the sink was another small bucket of grey water. Leaning into her, I told her that it was I who should apologize to her. Max and I were deeply moved by the reality that such conditions could persist in 21st Century America. We are so proud of USDA's on-going work in Kwethluk of installing a new waste water system to mitigate such dire sanitation conditions and that her tiny house will be hooked up to the system by the end of the summer."

Our agency's newsletter recently reported that the woman Kunesh visited in January now has indoor plumbing, soon to be hooked to a new village system. Interestingly, the picture associated with Patkotak's opinion on ADN.com shows honey buckets and sewage bunkers in Pitkas Point. I don't know if any museum has accepted the honey buckets from Pitkas Point but they are no longer in the village. To great celebration, the village was connected to running water and piped sewer in September 2011 thanks to federal and state funding, and coordination by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Locating opinions in their full context is important because a bleak and inaccurate picture of these conditions can create a feeling of hopelessness, and that is never good. Also, there are many professionals in federal and state agencies, regional health organizations, engineering and construction firms, nonprofit organizations, members of Congress and the Alaska Legislature, villages and others who are committed to addressing this challenge. It is a shame to not acknowledge their dedication and success.

Sanitation funding for rural Alaska goes back to just after statehood. The Indian Health Service was the sole source of funding throughout the '60s. In 1970, the Village Safe Water program was created by the Legislature to "assist rural communities in the planning, designing and constructing sanitation improvements." State funding was sporadic in the '70s, while regular funding continued from IHS. When Prudhoe Bay oil revenues hit the state treasury in the 1980s, state funding came yearly and increased, including healthy legislative earmarks.

Contributions from HUD began in the mid-'80s and continued for 15 years. In the '90s, the EPA began funding rural sanitation and continues today, albeit at declining levels. In 1992, Sen. Ted Stevens created the Rural Alaska Village Grant program, which continues to provide funding through my agency, USDA-Rural Development. Since 1960, more than $2.2 billion in federal and state funds has been used to address Alaska's rural sanitation challenges. Today, funding continues from the state, IHS, EPA and USDA but has declined by more than 50 percent from 2004, while construction costs continue to escalate.


With these investments, have conditions improved in the past 40 years? Certainly. Are further improvements necessary? No doubt. In 1970, approximately 15 percent of rural homes had running water and flush toilets. Today, more than 80 percent of rural homes have these services that urban residents take for granted. While these improvements are encouraging, problems still exist. There are 36 villages still unserved by sanitary systems. In other communities, the older systems have reached the end of their useful life and need upgrades, expansion or replacement.

More than 50 years of experience has taught some lessons regarding the construction and maintenance of rural sanitation systems. A common complaint is that some systems were too costly to build, and too expensive and complex to operate and maintain. "Over-engineered" is a phrase I like to use. With declining funding, increased costs and continuing dire sanitation conditions, there must be a new approach to meeting village needs. In response, the state DEC has created the "Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge." Joint venture teams of engineers, innovators, sociologists and rural residents are competing to develop new, affordable and sustainable in-home water and systems, which will be tested in the lab and field.

The public needs to know there has been substantial progress made year after year. If putting the honey bucket in the museum means every honey bucket, the goal is probably too ambitious. However, we have come a long way in addressing sanitation problems in rural Alaska but we still have a ways to go. We certainly can make progress, and we have to, because there is no more fundamental government service than protecting public health.

Jim Nordlund is a 32-year resident of Alaska, former legislator and current Alaska state director of USDA Rural Development, which has invested $229 million in rural sanitation over the past six years.

Jim Nordlund

Jim Nordlund is the executive director of NeighborWorks Alaska. Previously, he was the Alaska State Director for USDA Rural Development, a private contractor building contractor, Director of Public Assistance for Alaska, and a member of the Alaska State House of Representatives.