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Alaska town of Unalakleet scrambles for water after its system freezes

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published March 25, 2013

The village of Unalakleet, located in Norton Sound about 400 miles northwest of Anchorage, is scrambling to save its water system. Crews in this Bering Sea community, home to about 700 people, are working around the clock in temperatures as low as 26 below to unfreeze homes while thawing and repairing the main water line, which runs along the coast.

At least a mile of the main water line is frozen solid and the village's 1 million gallon storage tank is depleted. Up to 60 homes froze once water stopped circulating, Unalakleet city administrator Scott Dickens said.

After a creative bypass to inject Unalakleet River water into the system, the water is again flowing, but it's not drinkable. It's salty, collected from the mouth of the river, which flows into Norton Sound. Families have been encouraged to shower, wash clothes, do dishes, wash toilets – anything that will keep water flowing and, hopefully, prevent the sewage system from freezing. But the tap water is not considered safe to drink, even if boiled, and it's unpalatable.

Seeking disaster declaration

"It's just water to keep the system going," explained Dickens, who on Monday said city officials were in the process of seeking a state disaster declaration.

People are also being asked to keep heat tape turned on, an electricity-fed type of insulation that wraps around a pipe and keeps it warm. Residents are also being urged to keep their taps flowing slowly.

Some families are traveling up to 3-1/2 miles outside of town to a spring or a known watering hole at North River, which feeds into the Unalakleet River. Others are relying on the kindness of hillside residents with wells who are willing to share their water. Dickens said his father, who lives on the hillside, has already helped a dozen visitors looking to fill containers.

The water crisis comes little more than a week after Unalakleet, a checkpoint in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race, said goodbye to its last musher. Former Unalakleet mayor and current city councilman William "Middy" Johnson, a regular volunteer at the checkpoint who can usually be found cooking pancakes around the clock for mushers and other visitors, said Unalakleet was "just recovering" from the hustle and bustle of the race when the big freeze arrived.

"We've got a lot of work to do on that pipe," Johnson said, adding that despite the inconvenience it poses, it was nice to get a break -- however brief -- from daily chores. "It was good to take a few days off from doing dishes and laundry."

Relief could be weeks away

City crews worked over the weekend to fill the piping system with water from the Unalakleet River, diverting it from the storage tank and filtration center. By Saturday night, they'd cleared away enough snow, drilled a hole and started pumping water through a boiler to get adequate flow into the lines. Then the task of thawing homes began. Dickens estimates half of the frozen homes are up and running again. Only a few had suffered burst pipes.

Still, it could be weeks before drinkable water flows through the water system again, and that's only if the main line can be repaired. Crews were optimistic it might only take five days to get things back to normal, Dickens said.

The problem began the week of March 18 when a pump failed, causing less water to come into the system than was on demand, depleting the tank. By Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, it was clear the water line that runs south along the coast from Powers Creek into town had frozen and likely burst.

Crews were faced with having to do triage. The first priority? Save the system. Second? Get the homes thawed. Third? Repair the main line.

It hasn't helped that spring is delivering January-like conditions this week. When the pipe froze, temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees, Dickens said. But since then they've plummeted 20 to 30 degrees. A warm-up is predicted later in the week.

Officials urge residents to boil water

Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation is consulting, advising residents to boil water they gather from alternative sources for at least three minutes. The state's Division of Homeland Security has also offered help, including extra storage containers for drinking water and a mobile filtration system. For now, Dickens has said, Unalakleet seems to be managing its water needs with trips upriver or to the homes of well-owners.

Dickens arranged for 80 gallons of bottled water to be flown into Unalakleet from Anchorage as a small-source backup, too, and he may look to bring in more.

Beyond the round-the-clock efforts of crews he's hoping don't "burn out," he's also looking to the weather forecast for better news.

"Spring is coming eventually, someday, I hear," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)