Fires, deteriorating infrastructure and unusually cold weather strain rural Alaska’s already fragile water systems

In Unalakleet, the water that drips from the taps at home is sometimes brown and mushy, said Mayor Kira Eckenweiler. Residents haven’t felt safe drinking it in years, but the situation has worsened over the past month, she said.

Several mothers have reported that the water caused rashes in their infants. And the city’s old, corroded pipes froze so badly this winter that around 40 houses had no running water for about a month, Eckenweiler said.

“It really took a toll on the whole community,” she said. “It’s really hard to be out here with all of this.”

Unalakleet is one of several villages in rural Alaska that have had difficulty maintaining water supplies in recent months. Remote locations and extreme weather make it difficult to repair water systems in rural Alaska, and the money available to make systems reliable is way behind what is needed, officials said.

In Selawik, around 60 houses have been without running water for weeks. Due to a power failure on Valentine’s Day, the water treatment plant was shut down until the water pipes were frozen. Although power has been restored, it is unclear when all homes will have running water again.

In Tuluksak, the laundry room was destroyed in a fire in January. It was the only building in the Southwest Alaska Village with running drinking water. Almost two months later, the village has drinking water at the school, although its challenges are far from over.

In Nenana, an aquatic plant freeze was checked in good time, which could have been catastrophic, although the city experienced a boiling water alarm in February when the system was brought back to normal.

The water treatment plant in Unalakleet was built in the 1960s, Eckenweiler said. The system has been failing steadily for 10 years, and references to boiling water have become a lifestyle in Unalakleet, she said.

The old pipes are coated in about half an inch of dirt and mud on the inside, Eckenweiler said, which makes the water brown.

When the pipes froze about a month ago, water stopped flowing from Powers Creek to the storage tank. Eckenweiler said the water level had dropped alarmingly low.

Water started flowing again this week. Although the city is still boiling water, Eckenweiler dares that no one dares to drink it, even when it’s boiled. The residents use the water for cleaning, flushing the toilet, showering and washing dishes. But with the water level still low, according to Eckenweiler, the residents save as much as possible.

In February, brown water flows from a tap in Unalakleet. (Photo courtesy of Mayor Kira Eckenweiler)

“It’s difficult. … We don’t wash our dishes, we don’t wash our clothes that often, we don’t bathe that often, which has resulted in illnesses, bedbugs, and uncleanliness that really didn’t help, especially during COVID.” Eckenweiler said .

Norton Sound Health Corp. donated bottled water to homes with no running water, and Eckenweiler said other residents fetched water from the Unalakleet River about 6 miles upstream that had to be boiled before it was potable.

Eckenweiler said she got her own water from a family member’s home. Several houses on the outskirts of Unalakleet have private wells of clean water, and Eckenweiler said some people fetched water from there.

Buying bottled water is not an option for most residents. Eckenweiler said a significant part of the city lives below the poverty line and a 16-pack of bottled water can cost nearly $ 50.

Unalakleet declared a disaster on site at the end of February.

The age of the water system also makes pipes harder to thaw, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“It has leaks. Usually these aquatic plants would do when they are in cold temperatures and are concerned or have blockages in the pipe. They’re increasing the pressure, ”said Zidek. “However, Unalakleet has an aging system, so if you increase the pressure it can create additional leaks in the line.”

Eckenweiler said there were plans to channel clean water from new groundwater wells on the outskirts into the existing water treatment plant within the next two years. The city received funding for the new wells through the state program for safe water in the village, but part of the work was delayed due to the pandemic.

However, the new well water would still be distributed to households through the old pipes.

Eckenweiler said replacing these pipes will likely cost millions of dollars – more than the village can afford. The city is seeking grants from state or federal agencies to carry out these repairs.

“By the time we can replace the entire system, I’ll finally start drinking water from our taps that day,” she said.

“We’re so tired of dealing with our water, our bad water, and we’re so sick of being afraid of our water.”

Carrie Bohan, who oversees multiple water programs within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said Rural Maintenance Worker program staff respond to 50 to 60 water emergencies a year.

Water systems in rural communities face a number of challenges that are different from those on the road network. Bohan said it was difficult to get building materials to remote areas and construction times would depend on the weather.

“In northwestern communities or communities in western Alaska, there are situations where materials are being delivered by barge, but there may only be three or four barges a year,” she said. “And if things don’t follow a very strict timeline, you can lose an entire construction season simply by not being able to get materials on the barge.

“On the other hand, construction work can sometimes only take place when the ground is frozen as it is difficult to work in tundra and permafrost situations. And that’s why they also require special technology in order to be able to design facilities and buildings that endure in these environments. “

Bohan said about $ 100 million, of which 75% comes from federal funds and 25% from the state, is used each year to improve rural water systems, but it’s way below what is needed.

“That’s about $ 1.8 billion to both provide piping for the non-piped communities and make any necessary upgrades or repairs to the existing ones,” she said. “One hundred million sounds like a considerable amount of money, but it is a constant struggle to just meet the needs compared to the total needs.”

In Selawik, crews have installed two water points on the west side of the village for residents who have had no running water since the failure in February.

Power has since been restored, but the persistent cold has made it difficult to thaw the pipes, Zidek said. It is unclear when water can flow into these houses again.

“The big problem they are facing is that they are still facing severe weather,” said Zidek. “And they don’t want to expose the work teams to extremely cold temperatures – they are exposing these workers to dangerous conditions and they aren’t sure that is doing any good to try to get out of there and thaw those lines when it’s still extremely cold . “

Selawik, Alaska. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive)

Zidek said the city’s immediate needs are being met for now and there does not appear to be any permanent damage from the freezing.

“With maintenance and better weather, they may be able to restore things,” Zidek said. “And that’s a great scenario.”

In Tuluksak, residents recently had access to running drinking water for the first time since the laundry room burned down in mid-January.

Residents collected ice or buckets of water from the Kuskokwim River several miles outside of town. Water from the nearby Tuluksak River is not potable, officials said. The village received bottled water from Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., online donations, and the state.

The health company built a reverse osmosis water system at the community school that went operational last week. The system draws water from the Tuluksak River into the school, filters and treats it before distributing it around the school, the health company said on social media. The school will now function as a temporary station where residents can draw buckets of water for drinking, cleaning and washing clothes.

The healthcare company is working with city officials and federal agencies to move a water system from Bethel to the city for a more stable solution in the medium term. The long-term solution will be to build a new laundry room. Much of the project is expected to be funded by the Indian health service.

In Nenana, a defective garage door in the water treatment plant resulted in frozen and burst pipes in early February. Parishioners came in to help with repairs, and the city was able to restore water supplies without further damage. The city has planned major repairs to its old water system this year.

Frozen in Angoon in early February, pipes burst all over the city, leaving the village in southeast Alaska with about 400 inhabitants without water. The U.S. Coast Guard supplied bottled water to residents and repairs have been made on the main line since then.

Power outages followed the fire and caused some water and sewer pipes to freeze. Some pipes were also damaged by falling debris during the fire. Crews were working on repairs Wednesday and expected the main line to be fixed by Friday, although other frozen lines could potentially take longer to thaw.

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