ANCHORAGE — Two Native villages on Alaska’s wind-battered western coast are coping with shortages of treated water brought on by failures of their supply transmission pipelines.
Unalakleet, a largely Inupiat Eskimo community, lost use of its aging supply pipeline when it froze a month ago after power outages, and then developed leaks. Almost 300 miles to the north, Kivalina has imposed strict conservation measures all winter after its pipeline was damaged by late summer storms before the Inupiat community’s water tanks could be filled completely.
Unalakleet City Manager Scott Dickens said Wednesday that the 3 mile-long pipeline has been cleared and patched up. The community of 700 is now waiting for state environmental regulators to clear samples of treated water as safe to drink, but people are using the water to shower, wash clothes and flush toilets.
“Right now we are in a lot better shape,” Dickens said. The village is looking for ways to secure funding for a new system Dickens hopes to have in place in a few years.
To the north, Kivalina’s three-mile pipeline was temporarily repaired in the fall, allowing crews to start pumping water from the Wulik River. But winter freeze-up arrived long before the community’s storage tanks could be filled.
Kivalina’s City Manager Janet Mitchell said her cash-strapped village barely has enough water to last until tanks can be filled after the river thaws and turbidity levels drop, something that historically concludes in July. The village has made do with severe conservation restrictions and donations of bottled water. A few villagers took it upon themselves to collect ice to melt for their own use.
Officials had wanted to transport large portable containers to the Wulik River and collect water directly from a hole drilled through the ice but were unable to make the idea work.
Adding to the challenges for the community of 400, frozen pipes in February forced officials to close the washeteria, the place for showers and washing clothes. That left residents to make do with sponge baths or other ways to clean up. At the same time, that means people are conserving even more than they had been. Homes there have never had running water.
“If the washeteria remains closed, we should be fine,” Mitchell said.
In Unalakleet, water is pumped from a creek year-round, but when the transmission line froze in March, the treated water supply quickly dwindled. Crews working in temperatures of 20 below devised an emergency system to pipe brackish, untreated water to homes and other structures for people to use for anything but consumption and to keep the system from freezing. High tides brought saltier water from the Bering Sea.
People relied on bottled water and the generosity of some people living outside city limits who shared water from wells on their properties. People also were hauling water for drinking and cooking from a clean spring and the North River, the way they did until the water and sewer system was installed in the 1970s. Many Unalakleets residents are mushers with large sled dog teams, and they also collected water for their animals.
But residents are resilient and rose to the challenge, Unalakleet Mayor Leona Grishkowsky said.
“Anytime there is some kind of crisis, there’s opportunities to build character and community,” she said. “In this crisis, there were so many people who jumped in and helped, to do what they could so we could solve the problem as quickly as possible.”