Juneau water shortage; cruise ships cut off

Drinking water shortage means no filling up at cruise ship docks

The city asked residents last week to hold off on washing cars and watering lawns due to low water reservoirs. But residents aren’t the only ones who have to watch their water. Cruise ships are feeling it, too.


Until Juneau recovers from its temporary water shortage, ships are not allowed to fill up at the docks.

About this time every year, Salmon Creek — Juneau’s secondary water source after Last Chance Basin — gets too gritty to be potable, leaving the city to rely only on its five wells at Last Chance Basin, said Kirk Duncan, city Public Works Department director.

Cruise ships being impacted by a water shortage isn’t unheard of, said Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess Cruises. But usually, he said, cruise ships don’t have to give up all their Juneau water, just cut back.

“It’s not completely uncommon the last two years, but this is the first time I can remember in a long time where we’ve been able to get no water,” he said.

To cope with the moratorium on Juneau water, ships will have to fill up at other ports or make it themselves on board, Day said. Cruise ships are equipped with desalination plants -- equipment that changes salt water into fresh. But making water on board costs a lot more than picking it up from Juneau, Day said. 

“That costs more money because you end up having to run at a higher speed and burn more fuel,” he said. “There’s more of a carbon footprint.”

There are lots of other places cruise ships can fill up on drinking water: Ketchikan, Skagway, Haines, Whittier or Vancouver. But Juneau’s usually the most desirable fill-up point, Day said.

“Juneau’s a good place to get water because ships are here for the longest amount of time,” he said. “But we’ll get through it and we’ve got enough technical capacity.”

Even though the cruise ship companies are being affected by Juneau’s current water situation, residents don’t need to be concerned, Duncan said.

“It’s not a water shortage, it’s just we’re getting tight on water,” he said. “It’s not a crisis, people don’t have to worry.”

The city issued a warning Friday saying the water reservoirs were at about 30 percent the usual level for this time of year. City officials are encouraging people to pay attention to the water they’re using. Public Works saw a big spike in water use along with the record heat on Friday, Duncan said. This is common when the weather is exceptional, he said.

“When that happens here in Juneau, people just go crazy,” Duncan said. “You just see the water consumption just really go up.”

Duncan estimates the shortage could last until mid-June, once the Salmon Creek reservoir becomes clear enough to drink again. The level of sediment in the water this time of year surpasses the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s limit for drinking water, Duncan said. The grit in the water must go down by half before that source can be used again. 

“It’s reached that level and we have to wait until that goes away,” he said. “It’s naturally occurring, it’s not like there are chemicals or anything.”

The recent lack of rain also hasn’t helped the high levels of sediment, he said. More rain means more dilution of dirt and grit.

The city’s hydroelectric power will not be affected by the water shortage, said Scott Willis, Alaska Electric Light and Power Company vice president of generation. The water levels at the lakes the company uses for hydro power are all above average for this time of year, he said. Because sediment in the water doesn’t matter for generating electricity, Salmon Creek’s current state won’t affect the company or electricity users, he said.

Losing Salmon Creek for about a month means the entire city is reliant on the five wells at Last Chance Basin for its drinking water. Constant drawing from these wells is slowly sucking them dry and doesn’t give them a chance to refill, Duncan said. There are plans for two new wells to be drilled and ready for use in fall 2015 as part of a $3 million project. The additions will allow the city to draw from only a few wells at a time and allow the watershed to regenerate more steadily.

The city also received a $1 million grant from the state to install a UV filtration system at Salmon Creek, which will allow the city to use the water source even when sediment is high.

These plans take a little stress off the situation, Duncan said.

“We’ve got basically two more summers that we’re going to have to deal with this,” he said. “We’re really excited about (the new wells and filtration system) because if we didn’t have a plan, I’d feel a little uneasy.”

The plans to build up Juneau’s drinking water capacity will also allow the city to more consistently fill up cruise ships. Duncan said the city told industry representatives ahead of time that this year water could be in short supply.

“We told them early in the spring that this was going to be a real marginal year for water,” he said. “We told the cruise ships that this didn’t look like a really good year for them.

For now, ships are out of luck in Juneau.”

Day said cruise companies aren’t worried. Once the city can provide water to Princess ships, the company will start buying it again, he said.

“We’re kind of used to it,” he said. “We’d prefer to buy the water ,but until all of us residents can wash our cars and water our lawns, we’re not going to get water.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.


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