WASHINGTON — Some of Alaska's most remote communities, where the "honey bucket" stands in for flush toilets, could be in line for hundreds of millions of federal dollars to help solve their water woes.
The U.S. Senate passed the latest reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act Thursday afternoon, an often-bipartisan bill that allocates infrastructure funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. The vote was 95-3. The House is set to consider its own version of the bill as early as next week.
The Senate-passed bill includes a new grant program crafted by Republican Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan that could spend up to $1.4 billion over five years on rural communities that don't have indoor plumbing, tap water for drinking and wastewater services.
For the most part, that means rural Alaska.
The spending would be a huge boost. On average, the state and federal government spend about $70 million annually on villages to fund infrastructure upgrades.
Despite decades of work, more than 3,300 rural Alaska homes lack running water or flushing toilets, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. In 34 communities — mostly in Western Alaska — fewer than 55 percent of the homes have piped water or wells or even a septic system. Dozens of villages use "washeterias" and central water points where villagers gather for singular access to running water.
There are no simple answers for some of these remote communities. Often soil conditions make it unfeasible to install wells and septic systems.
Maintenance costs keep some communities from moving forward. More than a decade ago, the state estimated it would cost more than $700 million to provide rural sanitation and $200 million to install needed sanitation improvements. The bill authorizes funding, which is only the first step; Congress must still appropriate the funds in its annual budget bills.
The idea for the new grant program originated from Alaskans working to manage the state's water and sewer dead zones, Sullivan said. Staff from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium helped craft the language, he said. Sullivan is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is responsible for crafting the WRDA bill.
Andy Teuber, president of the health consortium, said the grant program wouldn't just serve communities with no infrastructure, but would also help replace "aging, failing and outdated water and sewer infrastructure in rural Alaska communities."
Teuber lauded Sullivan's efforts "to support first time access to indoor plumbing" in many Alaska communities, and said it could lay the groundwork for improved health for a "generation of Alaska Native children growing up in remote villages."
Health problems often spring up where honey buckets exist and sanitary sewer systems don't. A series of studies completed in 2008 and 2010 found increased risk and prevalence of respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal infections for rural Natives without access to piped water. The infections can be especially dire for children.
Sullivan said congressional discussion about aiding the lead water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, gave him repeated opportunities to let his colleagues know there are even more significant water and sewer issues elsewhere in the United States. At each committee hearing, "I would say look, I understand there's a concern about aging infrastructure. But how about the issue of no infrastructure?"
The "bottom line" is "this shouldn't be the case in the United States of America in 2016," Sullivan said.
The Senate-passed WRDA bill also included $100 million for Flint's water crisis. And any of those funds not spent after 18 months would go directly into the new rural water grant program.
"We are glad that the citizens of Flint are getting federal resources to help in that terrible situation. We are also very grateful Senator Sullivan listened to our concerns and acted quickly," said Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka.
For many years, the so-called "WRDA" bill was the most straightforward of earmark contraptions — a bill that amounted to a long list of projects. WRDA tells the Army Corps, "you can spend x dollars on this bridge, this road, this port dredging project."
But Congress has banned earmarks.
The new program included in the Senate-passed bill doesn't allocate money to specific Alaska water and sewer projects. Instead, it creates a new grant program, to be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and communities can apply for the funds they need.
"We're an infrastructure poor state by any measure," Sullivan said of Alaska, adding that funding infrastructure is a key role for federal government, and emphasizing the bipartisan efforts to craft the bill.
Sullivan worked on getting the program into the bill by working with the committee's top Democrat, California Sen. Barbara Boxer. "I'll work with anyone if it advances Alaska's interest," he said.
The funds won't be solely for Alaska, though Sullivan said he expects there are far fewer communities facing similar water and sewer problems in the Lower 48. Funds are likely to also go to communities in Mississippi, West Virginia and areas of Texas bordering Mexico.
The problems with rural water infrastructure in Alaska are not only an issue of funding and circumstance. Communities have long complained of bureaucratic red tape. Some legal requirements keep some federal agencies from effectively working together.
At a recent conference in Nome, Alaskans vented their frustrations on continually having to spend federally allocated funds on studies rather than pipes, Sullivan said.
Funding for and oversight over rural water and sewer services comes from an alphabet soup of federal agencies — the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Indian Health Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others.
In large part, grant funding for sanitation can be collected and then parceled out by the Denali Commission. Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski got an amendment on the bill passed Thursday to reauthorize the commission.
That would allow the commission to continue organizing rural infrastructure efforts in the state, particularly in areas dealing with climate change and coastal erosion, where water and sewer management faces additional challenges.
The bill also includes a provision that would allow Native corporations to shoulder some infrastructure construction costs for Corps projects, such as at ports and harbors.
For projects funded by federal dollars, there's a requirement a nonfederal entity put in anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the cost. Currently, states, municipalities and federally recognized tribes can act as "sponsors," and once the project's done, that entity owns the completed project.