Legislative committees get update on rural water projects

Despite major progress made in plumbing Alaska’s rural communities, the state is still more than a half a billion dollars behind in funding rural sanitation infrastructure.

The actual need, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, was more than $700 million in the 2014 fiscal year, while state and federal funding provided a total of $51.5 million in relief through the Village Safe Water and Wastewater Infrastructure program. That left a gap of $660 million.

DEC has also received about $2.5 million per year over the past several years in federal assistance for subsidies and loans awarded through the Alaska Drinking Water Fund.

Government funding for rural water systems has been mostly flat and even declined some since 2006, when DEC got nearly $79 million and the gap was $315 million, the department states.

“A lot of the early systems we put in the (1970s), ‘80s and ‘90s are deteriorating; they’re aging and they need replacement,” DEC Facility Programs Manager Bill Griffith said during an Oct. 2 gathering of House and Senate committees.

The joint meeting of the House Economic Development, Tourism and Arctic Policy and Senate Arctic committees was intended to update the bodies on work state agencies have done to implement the recommendations of the final state Arctic Policy Commission report.

The report, published in January, directs state agencies — DEC in this case — to “foster the delivery of reliable and affordable in-home water, sewer and sanitation services in all rural Arctic communities.”

The issue is related to un-served homes, but also many with drinking water systems already installed.

Frequent regulatory changes to federal drinking water standards continually push rural water systems in place out of compliance and add to the fiscal need, Griffith said.

For more than 50 years, DEC’s mission has been to eradicate the “honey bucket” from Alaska, and significant progress has been made in spite of the lack of money today.

In 1985, fewer than a quarter of rural Alaska homes had running water and flush toilets; by 1996, the number of fully plumbed rural homes was up to 55 percent, according to DEC.

Today, more than 90 percent of rural Alaska households have the necessities that are an afterthought elsewhere.

A fairly large number of very small communities, 31 of them with about 3,500 homes, which comprise 17 percent of rural Alaska communities, remain un-served by water and sewer systems. Griffith said those villages are primarily in the Interior and on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.

Adding to the need is that a lack of in-home water and sewer systems can lead to skin infections and respiratory illnesses for residents. Griffith said nearly all households in the state have access to clean water, but without plumbing they do not have access to enough clean water.

He added that more information is needed to fully understand the exact relationship between the illnesses and the amount and uses for water in the home.

Since about 1970, the state has focused on a “centralized” approach to water treatment, according to Griffith. That is, treating 100 percent of in-home water to full regulatory compliance, regardless of whether it is intended for drinking or flushing a toilet.

Storing the necessary quantities of water, distributing that treated water, either via pipe or hauled by vehicle and collecting and storing household sewage are expensive propositions in rural communities particularly given the added cost of supplying the heat often needed to keep the system flowing.

Installing the original system is expensive in itself, but maintaining it is another intense and expensive burden for cash- and expert-strapped communities, Griffith said.

As a result, “the cost of operating a water and sewer system (in rural Alaska) is magnitudes greater than it is in urban areas or the Lower 48,” he said.

Water and sewer user fees in some Western Alaska communities are more 6 percent of the areas’ median household income. The Environmental Protection Agency’s sustainability threshold for water and sewer fees is 5 percent.

The average cost in the Lower 48 is just less than 2 percent of median income, while Juneau and Anchorage are cheaper yet.

It’s clear a solution to these issues will not come from federal or state grants.

This is where DEC’s Water and Sewer Challenge comes in.

In 2013, the department began an international soliciting effort to grab the attention of engineers, social scientists, research institutions and manufacturers interested in solving Alaska’s rural sanitation challenges.

This summer, six teams were narrowed to three finalists: one group led by the University of Alaska Anchorage and two private teams led by Tok-based Summit Consulting and Dowl Alaska, both engineering and consulting firms.

Griffith said in an interview that contracts with the teams are being finalized.

Part of the evaluation process includes the teams’ efforts to include input from the affected communities and their ability to draft an innovative design solution that will help close the $660 million funding gap.

“This could be a place for innovation — a place for entrepreneurial opportunity,” Sen. Lesil McGuire said.

Companies retain ownership of intellectual property used in the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge to encourage private investment, Griffith said.

Systems will be evaluated on 10 criteria and must provide 15 gallons of water per person per day, or 60 gallons per day for a four-person household. Those that can provide more potable water with less water delivery and wastewater removal will fare better in evaluation, according to DEC.

Standard household service laid out by the challenge consists of kitchen and bathroom sinks, a toilet, a shower and washing machine hookups.

Successful systems must also be usable within the confines of existing water systems in rural homes and require minimal additional floor space.

Paramount for rural Alaska, systems must also have the capacity to be left unheated for multiple weeks and restart with minimal effort.

The bottom line for the challenge is $135 per month; each system should meet performance goals without exceeding an operational cost of $135 per month, which is 5 percent or less of median household income in 75 percent of rural communities, DEC states.

A full year of field tests will be done on the final systems, which will wrap up in 2017. A steering committee with then evaluate the results and systems demonstrating viable improvements over existing water supply and treatment methods will be deployed using funding sources available at the time.

Griffith said DEC got $4 million for the challenge through an EPA appropriation and state match.

“It’s a specific (EPA) appropriation for Alaska rural water and sewer,” he said in an interview.

Whether or not $4 million will cover the entire program is unclear, given the cost to test the future systems is unknown, he noted.

The state is also trying to take advantage of the U.S. chairmanship of the international, eight-member Arctic Council, Griffith said. DEC has proposed an international conference on water and sewer service in rural Arctic communities, to be held in Anchorage next fall.

The premise of the conference has been supported by the State Department, Griffith said, but still needs “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to become reality.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/24/2016 - 12:58pm