$27M in federal funds flow in for water projects
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development is allocating $27 million for water and environmental programs around the State of Alaska after USDA-RD Undersecretary Lisa Mensah made the announcement on Aug. 30 at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the City of Bethel are among several agencies and organizations to receive grants and loans for rural sanitation and water projects.
“I think that the funding being provided is significant,” said ANTHC Director of Project Management David Beveridge following a hectic day of traveling from the Bush to Bethel and back. “It is a huge investment in rural Alaska. It changes the quality of life and public health … homes that lack indoor plumbing have a health disparity as compared to those in the Lower 48.”
Beveridge cited, for example, how much likelier it is for a resident to catch pneumonia and other illnesses when the only toilet available is a honey bucket. In many cases, however, honey buckets are the first and only resort because high ground water and permafrost pose technical challenges to building an outhouse or hooking up a septic system.
In addition to cost, “there’s a question mark of how to get it done,” Beveridge said.
The state is continually looking at alternatives via a pilot program, the DEC’s “Water and Sewage Challenge.”
In 2011, more than 5,800 households in rural villages did not have a safe water supply. Five years later, although more households do have access now thanks to rural investment, the DEC estimates 3,300 homes in about 30 communities still lack indoor plumbing.
In addition, Alaska currently has 18 designated StrikeForce counties, defined by the USDA as areas where more than 20 percent of the census tract is living in poverty.
Since 2009, more than $2 billion has been invested in Alaska communities, with funds earmarked for water and sanitation projects, electric, housing, training programs and general facilities in rural areas. To receive a USDA-RD grant, the State of Alaska is required to make a 25 percent match. A complete list of grants awarded can be found on the USDA website.
Following are details of two major projects out of the 55 projects to receive grants from this round of USDA-RD funding.
Unalakleet, $6.62 million, DEC
Powers Creek, heading north along the shoreline and located several miles from the city, is Unalakleet’s main water source. As storms roll in, soil rolls out, exposing the transmission lines buried on the beach to waves with immediate repercussions and repairs.
“That is a temporary solution which only lasts until the next big storm,” said DEC Facility Programs Manager Bill Griffith.
Griffith noted that the line did not have problems for more than two decades, but recently has been having issues every few years. It will not be possible to protect the transmission for too much longer, he said. In fact, the water source is projected to be lost completely in the very near future. Without a water source, there is no Unalakleet, a Bering Sea community with a population of 712.
Because short-term measures leave residents in a precarious position, Unalakleet is unable to do long term planning, economic development or plans for basic housing. In response, the DEC evaluated various alternatives for the community and found that moving the transmission inland would not be as feasible as trying to develop well fields that are closer than the current source of water.
“The problem is we do not know if we can find enough water to meet the demands,” said Griffith.
Estimating seven wells may be required, the DEC is planning on drilling and testing sites this winter.
Bethel, $1.7M grant,
The City of Bethel does not have pipes to empty toilets, so 80 percent of residents have holding tanks beneath their houses. Sewer trucks with hoses remove the refuse, taking all the human waste to a facultative lagoon, possibly the largest one in North America.
One problem for Bethel is that the decades-old lagoon has never been dredged, and its jetty — literally a service driveway the trucks must use to make deposits — is crumbling away.
“The lagoon is a complex project with many financial contribution sources all acting in a collaborative manner,” said Bethel City Manager Ann Capela, referring to funding being provided by various state, local and federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DEC, Indian Health Services, the state, and the City of Bethel.
The entire renovation, totaling a little more than $8 million, must be completed under one umbrella project.
“Once you start taking sheet pile off and digging around? The ground hasn’t been touched for 30 years. We do not know how the dirt will react,” Capela said. “We’re talking summertime, permafrost and soft sand, so we have to be prepared for any reaction from the ground.”
In addition to lagoon renovation, three sewer trucks will be purchased to replace older models that have since been discontinued. Replacement parts for these models are not even available because the manufacturer is no longer in business.
Two of these trucks are set to roll off the barge at the end of September. Design and engineering plans will begin in winter, with digging and construction scheduled to start in the spring of 2017.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is the recipient of 18 grants for multi-phase and stand-alone projects in rural communities around the state. These are four of the organization’s projects:
Eek, pop. 256, $5.9M for water and sewer
This is the latest of several grants to continue a multi-phase ongoing project. Currently no homes are connected, but the first set of homes is scheduled to be online by summer 2017. According to the ANTHC, one more application for funding will be required to finish out the project.
Saxman, pop. 411, $3.22M for wastewater
Wastewater in Saxman, a City in Ketchikan Gateway Borough, is currently discharged from three ocean outfalls. The grant will be used to eliminate these outfalls by installing sewage pump stations into the borough wastewater system.
Kiana, pop. 369, $2.33M for water and sewer
This grant for water and sewage services in Kiana, a City in the Northwest Arctic Borough, will service a number of homes in a subdivision that currently lacks access. Design starts this year, with 2018 construction likely.
Golovin, pop. 161, $1.48M, water and sewer
Last phase of a continuous project to provide indoor plumbing for homes in Golovin, a community east of Nome.