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Water and Wastewater Woes

Thousands of Rural Alaskans still hauling potable water and using honey buckets


Anchorage Gateway Rotarian Larry Parker tests water in the Upper Kalskag home of Fred and Dunia Holmberg.

Photo courtesy of Anchorage Gateway Rotary

Alaska ranked dead last in the nation in the year 2000 for the number of homes without access to running water and sewer. Despite a concerted effort to make running water available for every resident of Alaska, that figure is mostly unchanged thirteen years later, and about six thousand homes are still without in-home water service, according to the state.

That’s about one family for every three living in Rural Alaska.

Got cell phone access? Check. Internet? Check. Multiple television channels? Check. Electricity? Check. Flush toilet? Nope.

For some, that means hauling water in five-gallon buckets for cleaning, cooking, and drinking. And without water service, most of those six thousand homes also lack flush toilets, relying on in-home waste containers commonly called honey buckets.

The state and federal government, along with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, have been working to solve this issue, but workers with the state’s Village Safe Water program say funding has slipped in the past ten years, and the program is not able to keep up with the need for new water service or repairs to existing water service in the 280 villages scattered across Rural Alaska.

“We have less and less money to do more and more capital projects. The gap continues to grow,” says Village Safe Water Facility Programs Manager Bill Griffith. “It’s the only rural utility of any kind that doesn’t have a subsidy.”

Yet it’s one of the most important utilities available—numerous studies have shown a lack of running water to be linked with higher rates of skin and respiratory infections.

Most Dire in the Y-K Delta
Of those six thousand homes without running water, roughly half are in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, Griffith says. Villages in the region frequently have wells that produce only brackish water, a mix of sea and fresh water unsuitable for drinking. Soils tend to be unsuitable for sewer lagoons, he says, and creating a lagoon at sea level generally means hauling in gravel, sometimes from far away by barge, to provide the proper drainage needed.

“The other thing about the Y-K Delta is, you have a lot of small, very isolated communities,” Griffith says.

For the Village Safe Water program, that means a large outlay of capital funding for a project that ultimately won’t make a large dent in the goal of getting running water and sewer to those remaining six thousand homes.

A Small Pilot Project Aims at Making Life Easier
That’s where the Anchorage Gateway Rotary and The Kuskokwim Corporation [TKC] project “Bringing Clean Water to Rural Alaska Elders” program comes in. It won’t drill wells or build a community sewer system, but it will get a source of fresh water into the homes of nine elders in Upper Kalskag.

Upper Kalskag is a village of about 210 residents on the Kuskokwim River about one hundred miles northeast of Bethel. It’s one of ten villages that make up TKC, says Maver Carey, TKC president and Anchorage Gateway Rotarian.

Upper Kalskag City Administrator Dwayne Hoffman says residents of the city have individual wells and sewer service provided by Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative. The sewer service works fine but the wells are hit and miss. Some are so loaded with iron it stains sinks and toilets and, when poured into a glass, looks like orange Gatorade.

Hoffman says it’s difficult to know what’s causing the iron-rich water. His home has a good well with clear water, he says. Down the street, his neighbors have rusty water. Solving the problem is costly, so residents with rusty wells simply pack water for drinking and cooking.

Carey suggested the group take the project on after Anchorage Gateway completed a water project in Gambia that was launched by another Anchorage Gateway member who is from Gambia. “I said ‘If we can do a project in Gambia, why can’t we do a project in our own backyard?’”

Other groups have attempted to do projects in Rural Alaska, Carey says. Success has been challenging. But she says she has an advantage—she knows all the players and can work with them to make the project succeed.

Rotary groups are known for their collective effort to eradicate polio from the world. But Carey says the group also promotes safe water and sewer projects around the world. That’s where the fresh water program comes in, Anchorage Gateway Rotary President Dave Sheffrey says.

“For quite some time now we’ve been looking for a project that affects us locally,” Sheffrey says.

About two years ago, Carey suggested the Clean Water project. They’ve been working on it steadily since last fall. The group looked into different ways to address water issues in Rural Alaska communities and found re-drilling wells was simply too costly, but it might be possible to put fifty-gallon tanks for fresh water into elders’ homes and have someone fill them frequently.

“It’s going to be a freestanding plastic well; you open up the pipe and pour it into something else. It’s pretty sustainable,” Carey says.

The water will come from Upper Kalskag city hall. The city has a good well and some residents already haul water to their homes in plastic five-gallon buckets.  

“The elders are packing water anyway,” Carey says. “They have to rely on their nieces or nephews and, if they get busy hunting, they might have to wait for a while.”

The project will pay for a local installer to fit the tanks in the elders’ homes, she says. Hoffman says a city worker will be able to fill the elders’ tanks once a week. The project will pay for a four-wheeler with a one-hundred-gallon tank mounted on it that the worker can use to deliver the fresh water.

The project cost is pegged at $50,000. In May, Carey said all but $14,000 of that had been raised, much of it from other Rotary groups around Anchorage. “We’re trying to get the last money together to get the [water] tanks out on the barges,” she says. The deadline is looming—typically the last barge visits Upper Kalskag in August.

Hoffman says there has been talk at the city council of extending the program to others in the community, perhaps for a small delivery fee. The roughly forty residents who now pack water could perhaps purchase a tank and pay for weekly fill-ups. It hasn’t been formally discussed, he says, but it seems like a good project.

“I’m pretty sure people would be wanting to do this; I don’t think the council would say no to having a reliable water source system,” he says.

Carey says she believes the Clean Water project will snowball once the pilot project is in place. She’s not sure there is a clean source of water in each village, but she hopes to expand the project in the villages where it makes sense.

Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge Launched
Griffith says he wasn’t familiar with the Rotary/TKC Clean Water project, but it seems like it’s a good solution for residents who already have water and sewer.

For residents in communities without in-home water and sewer, the state is trying to find a way to bring at least twenty gallons of water per person, per day, into their homes.

Recent studies have shown that, without access to plentiful water, people tend to stop washing as frequently and have higher rates of skin infections and respiratory infections.

“Lower levels of water services were associated with a higher burden of hospitalizations for pneumonia and influenza, skin infections, and [Lower Respiratory Tract Infections] LRTIs,” states a November 2008 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that focused on Rural Alaska residents. The study states that Alaska Native elders, infants, and children are largely the ones who suffer health issues related to the lack of fresh water.

It’s not news that Rural Alaskans would be healthier with access to clean water and sewer. The 2008 study outlines the history of the issue and states that, in 1954, when the U.S. Public Health Service created the Indian health program, infectious diseases were responsible for 46 percent of the deaths of Alaska Natives. In 1950, fewer than 10 percent of Rural Alaska homes had modern sanitation. In 2006, about 84 percent of Rural Alaska homes were equipped with modern sewer and water service. The incidence of deaths from infectious diseases has fallen dramatically.

But the war is not yet won. And the tools for fighting are more and more costly. So the Village Safe Water program launched a research and development project called the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge aimed at providing individual solutions for those remaining six thousand Alaska residences without running water and flush toilets.

“We think there’s a lot of technology that’s being used in other parts of the world that we can bring back to Alaska,” Griffith says.
According to a Water and Sewer Challenge brochure, “The project focuses on decentralized water and wastewater treatment, recycling, and water minimization.”

Previously the state focused on building central water systems with a central plant that has to be heated, meaning significant overhead. In Southcentral Alaska, users pay to upgrade systems and rates cover the cost of providing service and doing maintenance. That hasn’t been the case in Rural Alaska.

“In Rural Alaska, everything ever built is 100 percent grant funded and, to this day, none of the capital costs are locally financed,” Griffith says.

Village Safe Water has helped to finance repairs and build new projects. Last year eleven projects were readied for construction. But with less money coming from the federal government, from the Indian Health Service, and from the State of Alaska, the list of projects is growing and each year fewer and fewer can be completed.

“The idea of people going back to honey buckets is something people are going to fight as long as they can. But there’s not really an alternative [now] to a centralized system,” Griffith says.

Akiak, for example, has a forty-year-old system that Griffith describes as hanging on by a thread. Mountain Village’s water and sewer systems are not operational year-round, and Unalakleet was in the news this spring when, just after Iditarod mushers cruised through, the town used the last drop of water in its 1 million gallon storage tank and, with water no longer running through the pipes, had a massive pipe freeze-up.

The Water and Sewer Challenge in June launched a worldwide solicitation, seeking multidisciplinary teams to work on the issue. Griffith says six teams will be chosen to put together proposals on how to achieve certain targets—total water use at a set capital cost, for example. The proposals will be evaluated, pilot projects will be funded, and hopefully, he says, in five to six years teams will be out shrinking that figure of six thousand homes down to none.

“It’s a little ways down the road, but we’re trying to put things together that haven’t been done,” Griffith says.
Why hasn’t this been done years ago? Why are homes in Rural Alaska equipped with numerous other modern conveniences and still lacking water and sewer?

“It’s more challenging than electricity [for example],” Griffith says. “Electricity is fairly simple, technologically. You can do it in any kind of soil. Technologically, water treatment is unbelievably complex. When you start looking at all the different things that can be in a water source, it gets very challenging.”

But health-wise, it’s probably the most important utility of all.

“The health impact of water and sewer can’t be overstated,” Griffith says.

Rural Alaska Water and Sewer Facilities ‘Unserved’ Communities
A Rural Alaska community is considered “unserved” if less than 55 percent of the year-round occupied homes in the community are served by a piped or closed-haul system.

Of Alaska’s 216 rural communities, forty meet the definition of “unserved,” and these are as follows:

Arctic Village
Birch Creek
Crooked Creek
Hooper Bay*
Lime Village
Lower Kalskag*
Stevens Village
Stony River

*Construction is ongoing in these six communities to provide individual homes with running water and sewer service.

Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.

This article first appeared in the July 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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