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Alaska village short of water as winter approaches

Posted: October 9, 2012 - 11:05pm

ANCHORAGE — The Inupiat Eskimo community of Kivalina won’t have enough water to make it through winter, and residents were placed under water conservation orders Tuesday.

Freezing temperatures will prevent any further transfers of water from the Wulik River into the city’s two unfilled storage tanks, the latest blow for this community 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

“We’re packing it up because it’s just too cold to pump,” city administrator Janet Mitchell said Tuesday.

Kivalina, on a barrier reef in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast, only has enough water stored to keep its school open through mid-March — if the rest of the village forgoes the luxury of showers and washing machines at the village “washeteria.”

The school superintendent said the school — which opened late this year because of water problems — has to be operational until at least May 16 if not longer.

Mitchell was preparing a memo announcing the conservation orders, meaning most villagers can look forward to six months or more of hauling ice or melting snow for cooking, washing clothes and bathing.

The city’s water tanks hold 670,000 and 500,000 gallons. Together, that’s 42 feet of water, Mitchell said, but they now hold just 26 feet.

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 but did not have funds on hand due to a problem with a state revenue sharing application.

Late summer rainstorms damaged the PVC pipe and washed some of it to sea. Repairs were made but more storms continued to muddy the water, and they couldn’t pump until the mud settled. Freezing temperatures cause slush to jam the line.

Ice started forming this week, forcing the shutdown.

The water problem delayed the opening of school for five weeks. The school simply will not open unless it can operate its water and sewer system.

“You have to be able keep things hygienic,” said Norm Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. “That includes flush toilets as well as water for washing as well as for cooking, because we have to prepare meals.”

The city’s water on hand, Eck said, is enough to keep the school operating into March unless community use is severely restricted. He is hoping the city can pump more or that state officials will come up with a way to make more water in winter.

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