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Water-starved village gets last-minute help

Posted: July 25, 2013 - 12:12am

ANCHORAGE — Last-minute help has arrived for a remote northern Alaska village that is down to its last drops of treated water, barely able to afford replacement of a corroded water-transfer hose.

Officials in cash-poor Kivalina had feared they would not be able to fill the water storage tanks anytime soon, saying they would have to forgo ordering their next shipment of fuel to replace the line.

But a representative of a regional health care nonprofit, Maniilaq Association, traveled to the Inupiat Eskimo community of 400 on Wednesday to figure out how to help. Kivalina city manager Janet Mitchell said it could cost as much as $20,000 to replace the 1,300-foot hose. She wants the replacement to be 1,400 feet long because the old one is stretched too tight.

“We’re again in dire straits,” Mitchell said earlier this week before Maniilaq stepped forward.

Kivalina imposed strict conservation measures after its 3-mile water supply pipeline was damaged by late-summer storms last year before the Inupiat community’s water tanks could be filled completely. Residents have been forced to take sponge baths and some are collecting rainwater and river water to make do. During winter, some people melted ice and snow.

Maniilaq president Ian Erlich said there won’t be a repeat of that ordeal this year.

“There is no need for that,” he said. “We have to make sure that Kivalina has water.”

Nothing has been formalized yet, but Erlich is hoping to work out some kind of deal with Kivalina. Maniilaq could pay up front to replace the transport line. Erlich said the city could then subtract the monthly utility fee it charges Maniilaq at the clinic it operates in the community, 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The pressing goal is to begin pumping water from the Wulik River to the community storage tanks while there’s still time.

Millie Hawley, president of Kivalina’s tribal council, said she woke up Wednesday morning praying for a solution. Tribal leaders had looked into the possibility of using Department of Housing and Urban Development funds to replace the hose, but were unable to spend the money on that, she said.

With winter freeze-up not that far off, Hawley has become frustrated over the city government’s inability to quickly resolve the problem to ensure classes are not postponed as they were last year. For the situation to drag on for so long is “just poor management,” Hawley said.

“I’m encouraging people that have children to go after the city, to do everything they can do to make them accountable for what needs to happen,” she said.

After last year’s storms, the start of classes was delayed five weeks because the 128-student school had no clean water.

Mitchell said Kivalina has limited funding sources and not all money owed to it is paid on time.

“We have a lot of obligations and not enough revenue,” she said.

The supply pipeline was temporarily repaired in the fall, allowing crews to start pumping water from the Wulik. But winter freeze-up arrived long before Kivalina’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. Kivalina homes have never had running water, although some residents including Hawley, have portable showers.

For most people, water is taken for granted, something that’s always there. For Kivalina residents, water is the ultimate luxury these days. For Hawley, having enough water means going out in the boat a mile or two to collect water with 33-gallon trash cans.

“We’re really grateful when we get out of town and were able to do what we need to do without worry,” she said.

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