Storm creates water crisis in Western Alaska village

Bering Sea surges flood lakes with salt water as water tank connection breaks, empties reserves

Posted: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The powerful storm that pounded Western Alaska in October left the village of Nunam Iqua without fresh water, forcing the community to fly in as much as 500 gallons a day after its reserves ran out.

The Bering Sea storm flooded lakes with salt water, then a broken connection last week emptied the local water tank, village leaders said.

The state-sponsored water shuttle, which included shipments from Bethel over the weekend, has brought almost 2,000 gallons to the village since Friday. The village's 160 or so residents, about half of them children, received another shipment of water jugs from Emmonak on Monday.

"We have a contract to have delivered to Nunam Iqua 500 gallons each day," said Bob Stewart, community services manager for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. "And we're going to keep that up until they don't need it any more. Hopefully they will be able to start pumping within the next couple of days."

The troubles faced by Nunam Iqua, formerly known as Sheldon Point, were triggered by the same storm that flooded Nome's Front Street and caused as much as $11 million in damage to coastal communities and fish camps along the coast. A state disaster declaration for the region has received federal approval, and state officials are continuing to assess the damage.

"This is just one small element of this entire disaster," Stewart said.

Nunam Iqua, whose name means "end of the tundra" in Yupik, nestles only a few miles from the ocean on a channel called Kwemeluk Pass near the mouth of the Yukon.

About 35 families live in single-story homes, connected by boardwalks, most without indoor plumbing, according to a state database of Alaska communities. People must haul water in containers from a community water system filled from the river - but only when the flow runs clean.

When high tides and south winds force salt water from the Bering Sea into the channel, the village must rely on water stored in a 200,000-gallon tank. It was about half full in mid October, according to city officials.

Then a surge from an Oct. 18 storm flooded the village - floating and damaging boardwalks, overrunning lakes, fouling shore ice, leaving salt in the snow. The water also rushed miles upstream, leaving the river water at least four times too salty to drink, state and city officials said.

The village water tank could not be refilled until the river ran clear.

Villagers tested the river each day, but it remained too salty.

"Normally it would just get flushed out naturally, but it just didn't happen," said Alan Wien, disaster response coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Gradually, the water tank was drawn down. Then on Dec. 1 a fitting on the tank failed and the last of the reserves drained. The village contacted the state for help the following day.

The state has been spending about $900 per day on the water bottle airlift and hopes to qualify for reimbursement from federal disaster funds, Stewart said.

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