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Heavy rain creates water problem in Alaska village

Posted: August 22, 2012 - 12:03am

ANCHORAGE — A deluge of rain in northwest Alaska should make for an excellent subsistence berry harvest, says Kivalina City Administrator Janet Mitchell, if the showers ever end. The other effects have been a headache for the whaling village on a Chukchi Sea barrier reef.

High water on the Wulik River knocked out a portion of the three-mile PVC pipe that supplies water. Without drinking water, the opening of school, scheduled for Monday, has been delayed.

High water flooded the community landfill, which holds garbage and human waste in the absence of a sewer system. The flooding sent waste over a berry picking spot favored by elders because it was easily accessible. It also sent waste into Kivalina Lagoon, which separates the 8-mile reef from the mainland.

From her office 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and 625 miles northwest of Anchorage, Mitchell was philosophical,

“We just have to deal with nature,” she said Tuesday.

As much as nine inches of rain fell on northwest Alaska over the last eight days, said meteorologist Rick Thoman of the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

The rain added short-term problems to a community facing an uncertain future and a possible move due to climate change.

The warming Arctic Ocean has decreased a barrier of sea ice that protects Kivalina from open ocean every fall. With less sea ice, the fetch of wind and the size of waves increase, making the shoreline vulnerable to erosion.

Kivalina’s sand and gravel reef is held together by beach grass, and at one time, permanently frozen ground. Thawed permafrost also makes the reef vulnerable.

The community has just two months — July and August — to extract a year’s supply of water from the Wulik River. The pipe freezes in winter and there’s too much ice in the river during May and June.

In July, Mitchell said, the community was ready to fill tanks that hold nearly 1.2 million gallons but did not have funds on hand due to a problem with a state revenue sharing application.

This month’s rain has muddied the water, she said, even if the pipe were in place.

“It takes a while for the turbidity levels to go down — at least a week or two,” she said.

A state emergency management team will try to reach Kivalina on Wednesday. Mitchell will ask experts to sample lagoon water, where contamination is keeping boats out of the water.

Mother Nature may not be done with the community. Meteorologist Thoman said showers were predicted to resume Tuesday afternoon and continue through Wednesday, dropping down another inch or two of rain.

“That will send rivers back on the way up,” Thoman said.

The heavy rain will have wide-ranging effects for villagers harvesting and preserving subsistence food, such as fish.

“These are bad conditions to dry stuff in,” he said. “The impacts are more than just on rivers.”

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