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Rural Alaska

When will drenched Kivalina be able to open its school?

  • Author: Mike Campbell
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published August 27, 2012

Super-soggy Kivalina got a rainfall respite over the weekend, but residents of the Northwest Alaska village on the shore of the Chukchi Sea braced for another dousing Tuesday and worried when the new school year could finally start.

In the last 30 days, Kivalina has absorbed 8.27 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. But only a little more than a third of an inch has arrived over the last two days. Typically, Kivalina gets 15-20 inches the entire year.

"But another system is coming in on Tuesday, and there's potential for some real rain there," said Dan Hancock of the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks.

School for about 120 Kivalina students was due to start last Monday, but the delay due to a lack of potable water should extend deep into a second week. "It's going to be a while now before school starts," Vice Mayor Austin Swan, Sr. said in a telephone interview. "It's disappointing because last year we had something like 97 percent attendance and the kids' grades were up."

As the spongy tundra in the region has become saturated, more water is flowing into rivers and streams. Among them is the Wulik River, which empties into a lagoon beside Kivalina. The community sits on an eroding barrier island between the lagoon to its east and the Chukchi Sea to the west. The Wulik River spiked to 15.3 feet on Aug. 16, the highest level ever recorded since a river gauge was installed in 1985. By Sunday, it was down to 8.6 feet.

"Given that the community doesn't have safe drinking water or water for hygiene purposes, the school district chose to hold its teachers in Kotzebue until the issue is resolved," Wendy Schaeffer, deputy director of public services for the Northwest Arctic Borough, said last week.

Many residents continue to collect rainwater runoff for drinking.

Swan declared the situation a disaster about a week ago after high water infiltrated the community landfill and muddy waters caused by heavy rains threatened the clean-water supplies. High waters also damaged a pipe that feeds from the river into the village's water storage facilities.

"We've got really high levels in lagoon again," Swan said Saturday. "It's hitting banks. The tundra is partially underwater."

The mixing of lagoon waters with the landfill waste poses a danger to residents' health, Schaeffer said. Kivalina has no sewer system outside of its school facility, so residents rely on honeybuckets for sanitation. The content of those honeybuckets -- along with used oil, batteries and defunct machinery -- end up in the landfill.

And the rain keeps coming.

"This is way, way more (rain) than we've had before," said Swan, who was born and raised in Kivalina. "People are getting tired of it. It's going to take a while for the river to clear. The county is really saturated."

Last week, Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said officials from his agency visited the community. Among their priorities was examining a three- mile pipe that runs upriver to the first holding tank in the community.

"The transmission line … has sustained a lot of damage in the recent weather and because of the higher water, has been broken in a number of places," Zidek said. By Friday, the state's emergency operations center was still in the process of "coordinating a multi-agency state response in cooperation with agencies within the (Northwest) Borough."

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)

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