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Northwest Alaska village declares disaster in wake of heavy rain, flooding

Ben Anderson
Austin Swan photo

The Northwest Alaska community of Kivalina has declared a disaster in the wake of heavy rain that saw waters rise and cut off the village’s supply to clean drinking water. The Northwest Arctic Borough has also declared a disaster situation on behalf of the village, while school, which was supposed to begin Monday, is now on hold until the water situation is resolved.

A week of heavy rain saw portions of Northwest Alaska receive in excess of seven inches of precipitation, in areas that normally experience only about 15-20 inches of rain annually. National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb on Friday called the rainfall an “extraordinary event” that saw the spongy tundra in the region become saturated and begin to overflow into the area’s rivers and streams.

That included the Wulik River, which empties into a lagoon behind the village of Kivalina, a community of about 400 that sits on an eroding barrier island between the lagoon to its east and the Chukchi Sea to the west. That river spiked to 15.3 feet on Thursday, the highest level ever recorded since a river gauge was installed in 1985. It beat the previous record by more than three feet.

Even as the water approached buildings in the community Friday, residents contacted in the village sounded unconcerned, even unaware, of the potential for flooding as the rain continued to fall.

Rising waters threaten landfill and water supplies

Janet Mitchell, city administrator with Kivalina, said that the event, though unusual at this point in the year, normally wouldn’t be cause for concern.

“It’s pretty much like a spring flood when the snow is melting,” Mitchell said of the rising waters. “Sometimes when it rains, it gets a little high and it reaches our houses, but it’s not common in August. We’ve never had so much rain.”

Vice Mayor Austin Swan Sr. declared the disaster Saturday after waters reached the community’s landfill and muddy waters caused by heavy rains threatened the clean water supplies. High waters also damaged a pipe that feeds from the river into the village's water storage facilities.

Wendie Schaeffer, deputy director of public services for the Northwest Arctic Borough, said that the landfill mixing with the waters of the lagoon posed a potential danger to the health of residents in the community.

Kivalina has no sewer system outside of its school facility, so residents still rely on honeybuckets for sanitation. The content of those honeybuckets, along with used oil, batteries and defunct machinery, all end up in the landfill. So the lagoon water could be dangerous for residents, Schaeffer said.

“Currently, there’s no sheen and no odor from any hazardous materials that might have breached into there, so that’s a good thing,” Schaeffer said. “But overall, it’s just bad for the health and everything else out there.”

Kivalina typically fills its two water tanks -- which cumulatively hold more than one million gallons -- in July or August. But according to city administrator Mitchell, there’s been trouble replenishing those tanks as well.

The community would normally pay to fill up the water tanks with revenue from a local bingo game held for adults. But a petition circulated earlier in the year led to the city’s bingo permit being revoked in July, according to the city website. That meant that the money that would normally go to filling the tanks with clean water wasn’t available, Mitchell said.

As a result, the situation with the high waters has hit the community harder than it would have in years past, and looking for help getting their water tanks filled.

Can the water system be fixed?

Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said officials would be visiting the community Wednesday to help assess the situation. High on their priority list is repairing the three-mile pipe that runs from upriver to the first holding tank in the community.

“The transmission line … has sustained a lot of damage in the recent weather and because of the higher water, has been broken in a number of places,” Zidek said.

There hasn’t been a state disaster declaration -- which would have to be issued by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell -- yet, pending review of the situation by Emergency Management officials. They will try to determine what the best way to repair the line might be, then base their recommendation to the governor on that.

“At this point, we’re still in kind of a fact-finding situation where we’re going to go in and get a good idea of what exactly is damaged and what is needed to resolve the situation,” Zidek said.

He said his understanding of the situation is that residents currently have drinking water, but general potable water for other purposes is hard to come by.

Mitchell said that some residents -- including herself -- collect rainwater for drinking, which is certainly in abundance at the moment. Others take their boats upriver, where perhaps the water isn’t so muddy, or is less likely to be contaminated by the recent landfill flooding. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a rain barrel, or a boat.

“I’ve been able to store some water,” Mitchell said, “but I can’t say the same for families with many members in the same household.” She said that several households have 10 or more family members in one residence -- including one that has 17.

School delayed

But even as the water problem looms, another side effect of the shortage has been a delayed start to the school year. Students were supposed to return to classes on Monday, but because of the issues, teachers have yet to arrive in the community. Zidek said that the water shortage has prevented the school’s systems from operating.

“Given that the community doesn’t have safe drinking water or water for hygiene purposes, the school district chose to hold their teachers in Kotzebue until the issue is resolved,” said Schaeffer, with the Northwest Arctic Borough.

In the meantime, the rain continues to fall. The Wulik river had lowered in levels and the rain had tapered off somewhat, but the National Weather Service was predicting wet weather for much of the rest of the week in the region.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com