Rural Alaska

Whether by choice or by necessity, many Alaskans still without running water

Trista Crass has been without running water for 10 years, and she is just one of many across the Last Frontier living without an amenity most residents of industrialized nations take for granted. According to a state economic trends analysis published earlier this month, roughly 12,000 Alaskans live without complete plumbing -- running water and sewer -- a number that's decreased by more than 2,000 since the year 2000. According to the United States Census Bureau, at the start of the millennium 14,003 residences were without complete plumbing.

Unlike some of those others, though, Crass's life without running water is a conscious decision. Most recently, Crass has been renting a cabin in the Goldstream Valley on the edge of Fairbanks -- one of the state's largest cities -- but she has also previously lived in one other dry cabin, as well as on a sailboat.

Both of her sisters raised their kids without running water, and many of her friends chose to live a similar lifestyle without the amenity that, for most, is a modern-day necessity. Crass said she has to do laundry and take showers outside her home, but the process of living without water "becomes second nature."

"I tried for a while to do laundry at home, but it's too much of a pain," said Crass. "When I had a sauna, I would take a sauna in lieu of showering. I did that for about five years, with just a few showers here and there -- just for luxury."

Her biggest inconvenience is the struggle to take part in hobbies like screen printing and tanning hides. "Both take massive amounts of water, and it just doesn't make sense to do (them) in a dry cabin," she said.

According to the recent analysis, "Alaska has six times as many homes without complete plumbing or kitchens as the nation (as a whole)."

The number of Alaskans without plumbing comes as no surprise considering Alaska has two and a half times the national percentage of one-room residences -- studio apartments as well as the one-room cabins scattered across the state.


And while Crass chooses to live a life of "independence, space, peace and quiet," that also saves her a healthy chunk of change -- about $700 less than what she would be paying for a lifestyle with more common luxuries -- others born into more remote communities and traditional lifestyles often have less of a choice.

On the shore of Norton Sound in Western Alaska is the rural community of Kotlik, home to about 600 people. A gallon of gas costs $6.18. The town, divided by the Kotlik River, includes more than 30 people living without plumbing or a functioning water system, Mayor Thomas Sinka said.

Most Kotlik residents on the "other side of the river," away from the Kotlik School and other community resources, do not have running water, Sinka said.

"I guess they have been wanting water and sewer for a while, and we have been trying to get water to the island, but they say it's not possible right now," Sinka said. "It's going to be too complicated and will happen in another 20 or 30 years."

Sinka, who's lived in Kotlik for 25 years, also said that some residents residents' indoor plumbing isn't working, either. He said jobs in town are hard to find, so having the money to pay "pricey" monthly bills is a challenge. Others are still feeling the effects of a superstorm that hit the coast last November, and the damage isn't expected to be fixed until summer.

"Maybe there are some people that have unpaid bills," said Sinka. "You have to have a job to make money and pay bills, and there aren't a lot of jobs, and so they've got so high, they couldn't afford to pay. So we still kind of use the honey bucket system ... around town."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.