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By improving life in one village, team aims to solve systemic problems in rural Alaska

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published June 20, 2015

OSCARVILLE -- Three boatloads of experts in business, public health, tribal affairs, energy and housing descended on the tiny Kuskokwim River village of Oscarville one day recently to investigate a big question.

If they all worked together to improve one village, what would be possible?

It's a mission embraced in Oscarville, population about 50 and falling. The village that started as a trading post is a test case for a new approach to make life in rural Alaska better for the long haul.

"The ball is definitely rolling today," tribal administrator Michael Stevens said Wednesday as the field visit got underway.

Stevens led a group of 16 visitors down long wooden boardwalks to the shuttered water treatment plant, to the spot where people throw trash, to the ditches where residents dump honey buckets. But he also brought them to renovated homes, the village school and a potluck where village residents welcomed them with herring eggs, Pilot Bread and king salmon strips stored since 2013. "Old gold," one said.

The problems are as big and chronic as anywhere in rural Alaska. A lack of jobs and clean water. High energy costs and deteriorating housing. Young people who want more than a subsistence life.

"I want to stay and leave at the same time," said 18-year-old Henry Berezkin.

Project leaders are working with Oscarville on answers.

"I think this is a table full of doers, and that's why we are here," Jack Hebert, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Cold Climate Housing Research Center, said when the group gathered in Bethel to discuss the next steps. He is pushing for movement, but says he doesn't expect -- or want -- instant fixes.

Even with years of expertise at the table, an immediate solution to a problem as basic as reliable drinking water has yet to emerge.

It's a hefty lineup of organizations: the Fairbanks-based cold climate center and the University of Alaska Anchorage, the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture, the Alaska Energy Authority and Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Bethel's Association of Village Council Presidents and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Also at the table: Oscarville tribal members.

Their goal is to create a holistic model for other villages and regional organizations built on creative strategies, including how to leverage dollars in increasingly tight times. One new avenue might be grants for projects related to climate change, said Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, the project coordinator for the Kotzebue-area NANA Regional Corp. subsidiary WHPacific.

Ultimately, they want to show villages how to help themselves.

"This really isn't about Oscarville," Hebert said. "It's about creating a template where we work together. Because of the size of Oscarville and the number of elements that are missing for a sustainable community, it's really the perfect place to develop this template. Because all the pieces need to be addressed there."

No mail, no airstrip, no well

Oscarville was never a big village. It started in 1908 when Norwegian fur trader Oscar Samuelson moved with his wife, Katie, a Yup'ik woman from the Bristol Bay region, from Napaskiak to a spot across the Kuskokwim River. He opened a trading post and soon other Alaska Native families settled nearby. People began to call it Oscarville. The store closed long ago.

Stevens, the tribal administrator, said the population has been as high as 80. The 2010 U.S. Census put it at 70. But some homes were crowded with multiple families. A few people moved to Bethel or beyond.

The village has just 15 homes, some newly renovated for energy efficiency but others weathered and worn. There's no working community well, a deficiency that shocked leaders from Bethel when they learned. Residents pack ice in winter and collect rainwater in summer. When it's dry, they boat to Bethel or Napaskiak for water or boil river water for drinking. Everyone uses a honey bucket for a toilet. To bathe, people maqi, or take a steam bath. Occasionally there's a chance to shower at the school.

Electric bills are high because the village -- with no local utility -- has not done the paperwork necessary for state subsidies that benefit most rural areas. There's no village public safety officer; a part-time community health aide takes care of minor injuries and illnesses at the village clinic.

And while Oscarville is just 6 miles downriver from Bethel, it is isolated for weeks each year during freezeup and breakup. The village has no airstrip and no dock for skiffs or barges, which must time their landings with tides. Winter travel to Bethel is by snowmachine or four-wheeler; summer travel is by boat. There's no mail delivery. Residents shop for groceries in Napaskiak or Bethel.

When a trooper needed to get to the village this spring to respond to a disturbance, a Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer took him in an amphibious Argo and picked up two elders who needed to go to the hospital.

Still, for residents, the village is home, where they were born and raised and find comfort in the familiar.

Nathan Joekay, 18, rode up to the touring group on his bike wearing a LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. He said some people in Oscarville drink and cause trouble, and he doesn't like that. But he likes the routine: packing water, getting ice, hunting for geese, ducks and ptarmigan. He doesn't want to live anywhere else.

The project in Oscarville is "a good thing for the village in the long run," said traditional council member Marie Jacob.

She hopes for "healthier people, happy people."

Road to utopia

Leaders call it "A Holistic Approach to Sustainable Northern Communities."

The idea of bringing together key organizations in diverse fields to work on a single village sprung up in September during the Alaska Rural Energy Conference in Fairbanks.

The Association of Village Council Presidents -- the Bethel-based regional nonprofit that serves 56 tribes -- is a key player. In December, Oscarville agreed to be the test site. In February, a group traveled to the village by truck down the frozen Kuskokwim River for the first meeting. A $50,000 grant from Wells Fargo Bank to the cold climate center is covering early costs.

During Wednesday's field visit, the contingent of leaders from government and nonprofit agencies from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Bethel met with Stevens in a small community building owned by the Coastal Villages Region Fund, a fishing group. Nine had never been to the village before.

What is the vision for Oscarville? asked John Warren, engineering director for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"Growing to become a bigger village, a bigger and better village. Sounds about right," Stevens answered.

Are there any businesses? asked Nolan Klouda, executive director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Economic Development.

"A pop and candy store that is just starting," Stevens said.

What about a road? asked Brian Lefferts, environmental health and engineering director for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

Work on a hardened four-wheeler trail to Bethel -- being done with tribal transportation dollars -- should start this summer, Stevens answered. Once it is complete, it will allow Oscarville residents year-round access to jobs, higher education and groceries in Bethel, he said.

Stevens led the group on a tour down the village's wooden boardwalks. They saw garbage bags piled high and were told that in strong winds, trash blows across the tundra. They saw the sewage lagoon where no one dumps their honey buckets because it is too far. A system in which buckets were dumped into bins and hauled to the lagoon was too messy, Stevens said. Now human waste is poured into ditches near homes. In the winter, it freezes. In the summer, it percolates into the ground.

An art professor from the University of North Carolina tagged along on the trip to do research for a multiyear, multidimensional project that is in part about climate change. The professor, Marek Ranis, who filmed with a drone in Oscarville, is calling the work "Arctic Utopia."

Not all-or-nothing

Residents say their No. 1 need is clean drinking water, and that's the holistic group's immediate focus. The village well was shut down in 2004 when the water became too silty, Stevens said.

Can a village the size of Oscarville secure the money to build -- and the expertise to run -- a conventional system with piped water and flush toilets? asked Hebert, the cold climate center head and one of the project leaders.

The question wove through a 2 ½ hour wrap-up session back in Bethel, and the answer was probably not.

Oscarville's small size means it likely will never score high enough in a state ranking system for a complete water and sewer system, said Warren, who oversees water and sewer projects for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"We've been stuck in this all-or-nothing solution," Warren said.

Organizations now are realizing that's not the only way and are trying experimental approaches, he said.

One that the tribal health consortium is funding and the cold climate center designed will be installed this summer in 10 homes in the Northwest village of Kivalina, as a trial.

It's a portable in-home flush system that separates liquid and solid waste, and could be taken to the fish camp, Warren told Oscarville residents. The solid waste is dried and can be burned in a wood stove. But it requires the user to fill the 100-gallon water tank with water from a treatment plant, rainwater or melted chopped ice that is filtered and chlorinated.

Brian Lefferts of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. is working on a different design, which will be tested in a Bethel warehouse. He said it eventually might be a good candidate for Oscarville.

The community needs water now to prevent respiratory illnesses and skin infections, Lefferts said. He suggested repairing and restarting the community well. The water is heavy in iron and will look brownish, stain clothes and taste funny, Lefferts acknowledged. But it's safer than drinking river water, he said. The upriver city of Bethel periodically dumps its sewage into the Kuskokwim.

Residents probably remember that well water. They should be surveyed on what they want, suggested Gene Therriault, a former state senator now at the Alaska Energy Authority.

Maybe part of the answer is a summer-only water tank with treated water piped 6 or 7 miles from Bethel, Warren said.

Agencies agreed to work on water proposals to present to Oscarville.

‘Doing some of this stuff on their own’

The group is reaching beyond the water issue. The village is working with the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative to assess the condition of the power line that brings electricity from Bethel into the village. The AVEC meter is about a mile out of Bethel. The village is a single customer that receives a single bill from AVEC, then uses its own meters to divide up the cost.

The goal is for residents to come under the state Power Cost Equalization subsidy program, said Meera Kohler, AVEC president and chief executive. As it is, Stevens said the electric bill at his 16-foot-by-16-foot home runs $150 to $200 a month.

Another idea is the construction of ultra-efficient cold weather housing built by locals guided by a professional superintendent, Hebert said. A design used for flight school dorms in Bethel and in the tundra village of Atmautluak incorporates special trusses that make construction simpler and the building more energy-efficient.

Basics including water, housing and energy need to be addressed before any real push to create jobs in Oscarville, said UAA's Klouda.

"From an economic development standpoint, it's a very tough place," he said.

But there is potential to put locals to work on building the community infrastructure, he said. A colleague is promoting a project that would employ village residents to use GPS tracking devices to provide updates on changing river conditions for government agencies, shipping companies and the proposed Donlin gold mine.

"I wish we had nothing but money," said John Anderson, director of research and rural development for AHFC.

People in a successful village work well together and with outside agencies, and Oscarville is doing that, Schaeffer, the project coordinator, said.

Stevens is the spark plug, featured in a YouTube video he has yet to see. But it can't all fall on a single person in the village, leaders said.

"The history in rural Alaska has been (that) things do get done, but a lot of times they are a bit disconnected from the community itself, and it takes many years," Hebert said. "On the other hand, I think communities may be a little bit tired of people coming in for a couple of hours and flying out, and no traction on changing lives."

That won't happen in Oscarville, he said.

Resolve the drinking water and garbage issues and the village will be a different place, said Mike Hoffman, executive vice president of the Association of Village Council Presidents.

"Oscarville would feel good about this," he said, "and they could actually start doing some of this stuff on their own."