FAIRBANKS — Minto school principal Vicky Charlie brought six students to Fairbanks for a field trip on Thursday. When she returned to the village, the children’s parents had one question: Why didn’t they take a shower while they were in town?
“Some of the parents were joking we should have had them take a bath,” Charlie said with a laugh.
Residents in the Native village 130 miles north of Fairbanks off the Elliott Highway have been rationing water for the past two weeks because the village’s three wells can’t produce enough water to satisfy the demand of the village’s approximately 250 residents.
The village has a 150,000-gallon water storage tank that serves as a reservoir for the village’s water and sewer system, but an undetected break in the main water line earlier this winter resulted in the loss of considerable water.
“We don’t know how much water we lost,” village chief Lori Baker said. “We noticed the level (in the storage tank) was going down but we just couldn’t find where we were losing water from.”
It wasn’t until puddles surfaced in the snow in the middle of the village that they were able to pinpoint and fix the leak about a month ago, she said. By that time a considerable amount of water had drained out of the storage tank. The three wells the village pumps water from to fill the storage tank have not been able to replenish the supply adequately, Baker said.
“The water table is not producing water fast enough for what we need because the ground is still frozen,” she said.
The village’s water supply got so low last week that the village paid to have more than 15,000 gallons of water trucked in by a water company from Fairbanks.
Signs have been put up around the village alerting residents to the problem and the village council has asked residents to conserve water by not drinking from faucets, not doing laundry and flushing toilets only when necessary.
“People have been very good conserving water at our request,” Baker said. “We haven’t been this low for a very long time, since back in the early 1990s.”
Back then, the village pumped water from the nearby Tolovana River to avoid running out of water. That option has been discussed this time around, too, but Baker is hoping it won’t come to that.
“We’re just taking this day by day,” she said.
There is a creek near the village that many residents haul drinking water from, Baker said, and Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks delivered 400 gallons of drinking water to the village last week. The town of Manley, about 30 miles north of Minto on the Elliott Highway, is leaving its washateria open 24 hours a day so residents from Minto can get water there, Baker said. Some residents put barrels under their eaves to collect snow melt, she said.
At the school, which has about 40 students, water faucets have been taped off with signs asking students not to drink from them and large coolers filled with drinking water have been set up with cups for the children to use.
“We’re using our toilets but we’re telling kids not to flush unless it’s number two,” Charlie said. “We’re just trying to be very conservative.”
When she came to Fairbanks on Thursday for the field trip, she stopped and bought four cases of water before heading home, she said.
The village’s water supply typically decreases in the spring before the ground thaws but usually there is enough water stored up that it doesn’t pose a problem.
“It happened last year too,” Franklin Silas, one of the water plant operators, said. “All that runoff didn’t go into ground and it took a while to get (the water supply) back.”
The storage tank is 24 feet deep and the water level was down to four feet before the village had water trucked in, Baker said.
“That only gave us a few feet,” Baker said of the water delivery.
The village’s wells are only pumping three to five gallons of water per minute, she said. The wells haven’t been producing as much water as they used to, Silas said.
“When they first started out we were doing good,” he said. “Over the year’s it’s not producing like it used to. The aquifer is just going dry, I think.”
The village is seeking funding to drill a new well, Baker said.
In the meantime, Baker said, residents in the village will continue conserving and hauling water until the ground thaws out and the wells begin producing more water.
“We should be OK within maybe a month,” she said.