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Once again, Kivalina begins filling crucial water tanks late in year

Christina Whiting
One year after flooding prevented the Arctic Alaska community of Kivalina from filling its massive water tanks, cracks in the lines have again delayed access to the crucial system. Loren Holmes photo

Kivalina began filling its water tanks two weeks ago in hopes of averting the water shorage it faced last winter after fall storms damaged the water system.

This year, the month-long delay was caused by cracks in the water lines that took weeks to fix.

Kivalina’s public water source is the Wulik River. Water is pumped from the river via a three-mile surface transmission line to a pair of storage tanks. One tank holds 500,000 gallons of water and the other, 670,000 gallons. Along the way, the water is chlorinated.

“The smaller tank was built in 1978 and the larger one in the 1990’s,” said Janet Mitchell, Kivalina city manager. “The last renovation on the tanks was done in 2011.”

These tanks are big, steel, insulated tanks wrapped with aluminum siding and insulated with foam sheets. Riding 4-wheelers in the summer months and snow machines in the winter, residents haul gallon containers to the tanks themselves.

“In the winter, sometimes we have to maneuver 20 foot mounds of snow,” said Mitchell.

Water tank operators fill residents' containers at a cost of 25 cents per five gallons. There’s no limit to the amount of water that can be purchased. 

Consistently high temperatures are required in the spring and summer months in order to thaw the river enough so that the
tanks can be filled. If the river remains frozen later than usual or turbidity levels are high, severe water restrictions are put into
place.

Most years, the tanks get filled the second week of July. This year, a delay kept the tanks from being filled until the frst part of
August.

“In July, when the water plant operator was unrolling the water lines in preparation for pumping, he discovered cracks in the
couplings,” said Mitchell. “It took several weeks to get the lines in and that was too long, considering we needed to begin pumping in July.”

There was some water remaining in the tanks from the previous year, so the community was still being serviced.

“These tanks are our only water source,” said Mitchell. “We can’t afford to run out of water.”

Last year, storms damaged a water supply pipeline that left the school without clean water. As a result, the fall semester was postponed by five weeks and the students received three fewer weeks of school.

“We didn’t have the revenue to pay the workers to fix the pipeline or to pump the water because of issues with our revenue
sources,” said Mitchell. “Last year, we couldn’t pump water until mid-August.”

A handful of public facilities important to the community are dependent on the water service.

“The school, six teacher apartments, health clinic and Washateria are fully plumbed with individual water and sewer lines,” said Mitchell.

As in many rural communities, the Washateria is the hub of action for cleaning people and clothes.

“We have three showers, three washing machines and three dryers, but only one of the showers is working and more often than not, the dryers aren’t operational.” said Mitchell.

Residents pay $3 for a shower, $7 to wash laundry and $10 to dry.

“The City has considered raising the cost of the showers at least, to bring more revenue in to the community,” said Mitchell.

But for now, prices will remain the same. Still, some in the community would like to see improvements.

“I don’t mind the hard work that’s needed to haul water,” said Mitchell. “But there many people here who really want water and sewer.”

Mitchell has a shower that she fashioned herself.

“I can take a shower because I chose to design a way for myself to have a shower,” said Mitchell. “I can’t have a flush toilet unless I work even harder. I’m sure its possible, but its going to be a lot more hard work hauling the waste over 10 foot snow hills.”

On June 15, 2011, USDA executed a memorandum of understanding with its partners, including the Alaska Native Tribal Health
Consortium, the State of Alaska’s Village Safe Water Program and Indian Health Service to help provide rural Alaskan communities with safe and healthy sanitation systems.

Over the next several years, $29 million will be spent to plan, build and upgrade water and sewer systems in 16 Alaska villages. The Village Safe Water Program considers a village unserved if fewer than 55 percent of homes have a piped or closedhaul water system. But Kivalina is not one of the 16 villages being considered within this program.

Kivalina is regularly in the news because it is one of Alaska’s native communities that will have to eventually be relocated due to flooding. It is estimated, in fact, that residents will have to relocate by 2025.

“We’re an island with an 8 mile barrier reef,” said Mitchell. “We used to be 53 acres, but due to erosion, we’re now 27.” 

This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.