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After week of torrential rains, another storm system over Northwest Alaska

Ben Anderson

Mother Nature just isn’t easing up on Northwest Alaska. Even as area rivers and streams remain swollen from last week's steady rains, another weather system was set to move in Thursday and Friday. The cherry on top: high winds and rough seas were expected to hit the Western coast Friday night, from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta all the way to Point Hope in the far Northwest.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina was working to restore clean drinking water after flooding on the Wulik River. Kivalina sits on a barrier island sandwiched between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon fed by the Wulik and Kivalina rivers. A new school year was supposed to start Monday, but until the water problem is resolved, the village school remains shuttered in the community of about 400.

Representatives from the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and the Department of Environmental Conservation arrived in Kivalina Wednesday morning to evaluate the situation. A report from the officials on Kivalina's situation was delayed after they were forced to return to Kotzebue, a regional hub for Northwest Alaska, because of bad weather setting back in.

Expect the weather to linger at least a few more days, said Ed Plumb, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. In the last 48 hours or so, parts of the region have seen another 1-2 inches of rainfall. That's on top of the 5-7 inches of rain that fell in some places last week.

Although many of the region's rivers and streams are still "running high," Plumb said there likely won't be another spike in water levels until Thursday night into Friday. But the worst may be yet to come from rain over the last couple of days.

A river gauge measuring Wulik River water levels showed a steady rise since Tuesday evening, and according to Plumb, a crest of water from the most recent rainfall was expected to pass the gauge Wednesday evening and continue downstream.

"That surge of higher water is going to move downriver and come out the mouth of the river some time Thursday," Plumb said. "It'll likely be very silty again."

Murky river water is just one reason Kivalina hasn't been able to fill either of its two water tanks, which provide the village's primary source of clean water. In addition to the high turbidity of the water, a pipe that delivers water to the village from three miles upriver was damaged when the Wulik spilled over late last week.

According to Kivalina city Administrator Janet Mitchell, the community is stuck in a bit of a holding pattern while officials decide whether to recommend that Gov. Sean Parnell issue a disaster declaration for the region.

"They can give us possibilities," Mitchell said of the officials visiting the village Wednesday, "but they're only here to collect information and present it to the right people."

In the meantime, the community must wait either for funding to fill their water tanks or for the water in the river to clear up enough to begin pumping it back into the tanks.

Mitchell said there wasn't much Kivalina could do in the face of further flooding. She said officials had discussed erecting a sandbag barrier to separate floodwaters from the village landfill, which also flooded last week and potentially contaminated waters of the lagoon behind the community.

Residents continue to collect rainwater -- more or less available in abundance at the moment -- and ride out the storm. Other problems have arisen as well: Mitchell said that residents traveling upriver in a boat struck the end of that pipe that feeds water to the community, displaced in the storm system. One person in the boat went overboard, but was OK, Mitchell said.

"So now they have to warn people about that," she said, adding that villagers are riding out the bad weather and hoping for the best.

"There's always hope," Mitchell said. "It's just a matter of when."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com