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Rural Alaska

Engineering competition has designs on eliminating Alaska's honey buckets

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 29, 2014

Looking to reduce the number of health issues suffered by Alaskans without access to running water and sewer systems, the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge is underway to find new methods and techniques to eliminate the honey bucket.

As anyone who has spent time in rural parts of the state can attest, water and wastewater management is a continuing challenge for communities located off Alaska's limited road system. Solutions have been sought for decades, with mixed success. Now the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Village Safe Water Program has connected six prospective companies with Alaska villages to design, create and test an all-in-one water and sewer system. It is hoped that the project will eventually help replace dirty sewage lagoons, centralized water transmission lines, and honey buckets -- the 5-gallon buckets still used as toilets by many in the state.

The competition approach, instead of the more typical request for proposals, is an unusual one for the state of Alaska. The six companies -- out of 18 that applied -- have been chosen for the competition's second phase, which will end with proposal presentations next summer. After that, three companies will be funded for testing and product development, with a winner chosen and possibly manufacturing new systems in the next four to six years.

"We are really looking for some innovation and we thought this technology would take some additional effort and maybe require some additional motivation," said DEC facility program manager Bill Griffith. "For several years we have known that our existing approach would not be feasible for every community."

Griffith likened the competition to similar technology drives elsewhere funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

More than 140 rural Alaska communities have water and sewer systems in at least 75 percent of area households, according to Cheryl Rosa, deputy director of the Arctic Research Commission. But 30 communities have between zero and 25 percent of households on some type of water and sewer system.

According to the research commission, more than 4,700 rural Alaska homes lack running water and sewage systems. The DEC said that people living in homes without running water "have a much higher incidence of acute respiratory infections and severe skin infections requiring hospitalization than persons with in-home running water." One of the infections, invasive pneumococcal disease, can affect the brain, blood and lungs, according to the state.

The goal of the program isn't just to find a way for everyone in rural areas to have access to safe water. Large central pipe and truck systems, in use in most Alaska villages, are expensive and difficult to maintain for a community as a whole. It is hoped that whatever comes from the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge will also replace those systems.

The program's goal is a secure, safe source of at least 15 gallons of running water per person, per day, that will cost no more than $135 per month for a home to run and maintain. Wastewater management has to be included into the design of the system -- meant to be fitted to individual houses, and avoiding centralized water and wastewater management.

Griffith said that much of the technology required to do the job already exists, but no one has paired water storage and delivery with conservation and wastewater management into one complete system capable of standing up to the rigors of sub-Arctic and Arctic living.

"I think it's unlikely we are going to see a brand-new technology that nobody has ever seen before," Rosa said. "I think what we are going to see is some technology used in warmer climates, or that is used elsewhere ... and make them usable in Arctic."

The companies in the running for the program are:

Tetra Tech, a combination of engineering firms and universities in Alberta, Canada, and Sydney, Australia.

Lifewater Engineering Co., a Fairbanks-based company working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cold Climate Housing Research Center, Campwater Industries, and AppTech Solutions.

Dowl HKM Alaska, a large national engineering firm with offices throughout Alaska.

Cowater Alaska, a decentralized water and wastewater company that has partnered with Zender Environmental Health and Research Group and Garness Engineering.

Summit Consulting Services, an Alaska engineering company that has partnered with facilitation firm Agnew::Beck Consulting.

The Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge is being run by a working group consisting of members from the DEC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Indian Health Service, the Arctic Research Commission, and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. It is hoped that the competition will help the state stave off the growing difference between available money and the need for water and sewer systems in rural villages.

"We are under $100 million in funding now and going down," Rosa said. "But need is going up, up, up, and we are getting close to $800 million right now (in needed work)."

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