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Hope returns to Kivalina after disastrous flooding

Ben Anderson
The Kivalina seawall after the November 2011 storm.
Photo courtesy Janet Mitchell
The coastal village of Kivalina in Northwestern Alaska
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Kivalina seawall in 2009.
Peter Law photo
The narrow village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
The remote Alaska village of Kivalina in winter.
Alaska Dispatch staff
An old church bell in Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A honeybucket dump in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A whalebone arch in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina in 2009.
Peter Law photo
A sandbar off Kivalina, Alaska
Tony Hopfinger photo
McQueen School with children playing on the playground in September 2011.
The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment photo

More than a month after school was postponed by flooding in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina, students are still biding their time, waiting for clean water to be restored to the community so they can finally start classes. Now, the end is finally in sight, with water flowing into the school and teachers set to arrive next week -- provided everything keeps moving along smoothly.

Heavy rain over the course of two weeks in August saw the tundra surrounding the community saturated, and the Wulik River, which provides water to the village, run higher than ever before. That high water flooded the lagoon on the backside of the community -- which sits on a barrier island with the lagoon on one side and the Chukchi Sea on the other -- and washed out a pipe that feeds water into the city’s water supply.

With that pipe damaged, the community found itself unable to fill up its two water tanks, which together hold about 1.2 million gallons and provide the village with water in the winter months. It also meant one of the only piped facilities in the area, the school, had no water, just days before classes were set to begin for the year.

The city declared a disaster in the wake of the flooding, followed by a disaster declaration from Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. With the help of numerous state and local agencies, water is finally flowing back into the city’s water tanks. On Thursday, city administrator Janet Mitchell reports, the community was able to turn water back on to the washateria in the community, allowing residents to take showers and do laundry.

“They were pretty happy yesterday when I announced that we were back in business,” Mitchell said of the community’s residents.

Mitchell said that she had heard that school might be able to resume on Sept. 24, a week earlier than originally predicted when the water crisis was at its worst.

That date was confirmed by Norman Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, who said that teachers should begin arriving on Wednesday, Sept. 19, with an estimated school start date the following Monday.

“That’s going to be a wonderful day,” Eck said. He added a caveat: it's all dependent on everything going according to plan as water continues to fill tanks and the Department of Environmental Conservation declares the water safe for drinking.

Necessary repairs

According to John Spriggs, director of environmental health with Maniilaq Association, that could happen as early as Monday. Maniilaq, a tribal social services organization in Northwest Alaska, has been working with numerous agencies on the repair and refilling of Kivalina’s water supply.

Spriggs said that the community remains on a notice to boil any water to be used for drinking, since it hasn’t yet been determined that the water coming from the tanks is safe, but the samples he’d seen so far “look really good.”

Spriggs said the biggest concern now is making sure that the tanks will fill up fast enough before really cold weather sets in and freezing prevents further pumping. To that effect, technicians are trying to work out a way to pump water into the primary, 750,000-gallon tank -- which holds the raw water from the Wulik River -- while still pumping into the secondary, 500,000-gallon filtered tank.

Currently, water has to stop being pumped into the first tank in order to flow water into the second. The first tank also fills up much faster -- Spriggs estimates about 50 gallons per minute -- than the second, which is currently pumping at a more leisurely eight or 10 gallons per minute.

“We’re racing against time,” Spriggs said. “We want to put water into the raw water storage tank and filter at the same time. We’re gonna try to do both, but that just takes some redesign and some engineering. But we think we’ve got a way to do it.”

Hopefully the effort will be successful before the weather forces it to be broken off. Usually the community fills the tank much earlier in the year, but funding problems caused the tank to sit mostly empty this summer. If the tank doesn’t get filled all the way, Spriggs said, it could cause problems as winter wears on and the community begins running out of water.

The temporary vinyl pipe currently being used to fill in for a washed-out aluminum section will also need replacement, but that’s a project for next year, Spriggs said.

With Parnell’s disaster declaration, the city will be eligible for disaster relief funds, but those won't come until later, after necessary repairs have been completed and the full extent of damage has been determined.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com