ANCHORAGE — Students in a remote Inupiat Eskimo village in northern Alaska received three fewer weeks of school because of a severe shortage of treated water.
The fall semester was postponed five weeks in Kivalina last year after late summer storms damaged a water supply pipeline that left the school without clean water.
Students were able to make up two weeks of the lost time because school days were lengthened by 30 minutes, Northwest Arctic Borough School District superintendent Norm Eck said Friday.
Classes ended last week in the community 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Very little treated water remains in the village tanks and the 128-student school would have soon run out anyway, Eck said.
The school still met the number of hours required for students to get full credit, he said.
“Miracle of miracles, perhaps, that we made it,” he said. “We had no idea we were going to be able to get to the end of the year. It was scary come January and February.”
The school bought some time because of severe water restrictions that have been in place for months in the community of 400. Kivalina city manager Janet Mitchell said the conservation efforts remain in place until tanks can be filled after the Wulik River thaws and turbidity levels drops, something that historically concludes in July.
Storms damaged the Kivalina’s water supply pipeline before the community’s water tanks could be filled completely. The three-mile pipeline was temporarily repaired in the fall, allowing crews to start pumping water from the Wulik. But winter freeze-up arrived long before the community’s storage tanks could be filled.
Officials had wanted to transport large portable containers to the river and collect water directly from a hole drilled through the ice but that idea didn’t work out.
Adding to the challenges, frozen pipes in February forced officials to close the washeteria, the place for showers and washing clothes. That left residents to find other ways to clean up. Homes in Kivalina have never had running water.
The impoverished village has made do with the restrictions and donations of bottled water. Mitchell expects the treated water supply to run out in mid-June, which means villagers will have to gather their own water or buy bottled water for a while.
But people have already found creative ways to boost their water supplies. Some have been collecting ice to melt for their own use. When the ocean ice thins, people with boats will be able to go gather the clean tips of icebergs. After recent rains, one household collected 80 gallons of water.
“This is what our ancestors used to do,” Mitchell said. “We learned from them.”