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Rural Alaska

Massive influx of workers strains Emmonak water system, temporarily closes fish plant

Lower Yukon River commercial fishermen stopped fishing for a day last week when a water shortage forced the only processing plant in the region to temporarily shut down.

The Kwik'pak Fisheries processing plant suspended operations Wednesday when there was not enough water in the village of Emmonak to allow operations. The closure came at the height of the commercial chum salmon season, when fishermen catch 10,000 to 15,000 fish each day, according to general manager Jack Schultheis. He said it was the first time in 12 years the plant had to suspend operations.

With no ability to process the fish, fishermen avoided fishing until Thursday, when the plant was able to reopen. It has remained open since.

The closure was first reported by KNOM.

The processing plant serves as the end point for fishermen in the region who bring in about 75,000 pounds of fish daily. Without water from the community, the plant wouldn't have been able to properly clean fish or produce the ice necessary to ship the fish from Emmonak, a community of about 800 at the mouth of the Yukon River about 10 miles from the Bering Sea.

Emmonak has struggled to keep up with water demands this summer as the city has seen its population soar to about 2,000, according to City Manager Martin B. Moore Sr. He noted that several multimillion-dollar projects are being completed in the community -- including a $34 million school, a $4 million road project and a $15 million tank farm for the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.

With those projects come lots of workers, all in need of showers and toilets, he said. The city has asked the workers to conserve water for the time being. Moore is in the process of trying to find an outside organization to assist in purchase of a modular unit for the village to help increase the water storage capabilities of the current system.

Schultheis commended city officials for working to restore water service. He said they prioritized water to be directed to the plant during the day, then to the city during the evening. It's a "big deal" when the plant doesn't operate, Schultheis said, noting that it employs 220 people and is the only place in the region commercial fishermen can sell their fish.

Schultheis said having to conserve water was a hardship for the community, but it was one they accepted. Commercial fishing is one of the few income sources in the region, vital to those who survive off of a subsistence lifestyle.

"Nobody was mad," he said. "(Water conservation) keeps the fish plant running so we can keep fishing."

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