2004's low rivers could mean severe winter for some Alaska villages

Insufficient water levels have made it impossible for fuel barges to get into several remote areas

Posted: Monday, October 04, 2004

FAIRBANKS - The weather phenomenon that brought the largest fire season in Alaska's history is not finished wreaking havoc yet.

Six remote villages are short of heating oil and fuel for power generators because unusually low river levels have kept barges away.

State and village leaders are trying to find solutions for six villages in southwest Alaska along the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak rivers as freezeup quickly approaches.

This summer's record dry, hot weather caused rivers to drop to levels that people haven't seen in decades, said hydrologist Ben Balk with the Alaska Pacific Forecast Center in Anchorage. The weather pattern was due to high-pressure ridges that sat over the state all summer.

"Rivers that were glacially fed maintained some flow," he said. "Those rivers that weren't glacially fed were very low all year long."

For the many Alaska communities that do not have road access, bulk fuel deliveries are typically made by boat in the spring and fall, then stored in tank farms. But this year, water levels have dropped so low that fuel barges were not able to make their normal fall deliveries, said Shaen Tarter, vice president of Yukon Fuel Co., a main supplier in remote Alaska communities.

Steady rain for several days could fix the problem for the Nushagak River villages of New Stuyahok, Koliganek and Ekwok. But McGrath, Holy Cross and Shageluk are going to have to find other ways to get fuel into the villages, Tarter said.

Holy Cross, a Yukon River village of 209 people, usually has about 35,000 gallons of fuel on hand by the fall, said Alden Walker, manager for Holy Cross Oil. But the barge didn't make it and it won't until next year.

"We need about 18,000 gallons at least to make it," Walker said. "If we don't and if it's going to be a bad winter or cold winter, we'll need more than that."

Right now, 100 gallons of heating oil costs the village $350. But that price will go up dramatically if fuel must be flown in, Walker said. Villagers could gather firewood but they'll also need gasoline to take their vehicles to tree stands, he said.

There are enough trees around Ekwok to support the village's heating needs, city administrator Ernie Nelson said. Many in the community of 126 people have wood stoves along with fuel-powered heat sources.

But because their 43,500-gallon order fell through, the village power generator likely won't have enough fuel to run through the winter. The generator consumes about 25,000 gallons.

"We still have about 15,000 gallons," he said.

Heating oil there costs $2.90 a gallon. If it has to be flown in from Dillingham, it will cost $1 to $1.50 more per gallon, Nelson said.

"It'll be a long, expensive winter," he said.

McGrath Power & Light will likely run out of fuel for its electric generator by the end of February, said Bob Coghill, general manager for MTNT, Ltd., the owner of McGrath's electric company. About 16,000 gallons more is needed to make it through to spring.

Natalie Baumgartner, McGrath's city administrator, said she's worried about having enough power to keep underground water and sewer lines working for the community of 415 people.

Some of the threatened communities could get fuel delivered overland if the rivers and tundra freeze enough for heavy vehicles to pass over them, officials said.

A shipment could be delivered to New Stuyahok that way. New Stuyahok Mayor Randy Hastings said the village's fuel usually comes in two shipments because the tank farm isn't large enough to accommodate all needs. The first delivery fills up the tank farm and other large fuel storage tanks, then a second barge delivers fuel that is taken to residents by a fuel truck.

Neither shipment made it this year and firewood is not readily available to the community of 95 people, Hastings said. Some villagers fish driftwood out of the river and dry it. Otherwise people have to go about 90 miles up the Nushagak by boat for dry firewood.

The cost of heating oil is $380 per hundred gallons and on average, each home uses about 1,000 gallons a year, Hastings said.

The school is short of oil, too.

"I tease the kids at the Boys and Girls Club if they see a spider, kill it," Hastings said. "They ask why and I say, 'Have you ever heard of the old wives' tale, if you kill a spider it will rain?"'

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