December 2015 Vol. 70 No. 12


Alaskan Villages Still Without Plumbing Infrastructure

Despite more than $2 billion in federal and state funding over the past 50 years to provide for essentials such as running water, residents in at least 30 secluded Alaskan villages live without basic plumbing infrastructure.

With the State of Alaska facing tightening budgets, traditional piped water and sewer systems are no more, so Alaskans in these isolated communities utilize outhouses or large buckets as toilets.

Many of the residents in these communities collect their drinking water from rain, snow, rivers or ice. Human waste is gathered into bins outside residences, and then picked up by locals on four-wheelers and trailers, before being hauled to the sewage lagoon within the community.

Residents said that eventually, community members walk on the overflow that collects on village boardwalks. In fact, the high rate of skin infections and respiratory illnesses within native communities has been directly linked to the lack of water and sewer services. However, funding a traditional pipe system within a rural Alaska native community can cost between $200,000 and $400,000, according to Bill Griffith with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) water division.

The cost can be attributed to the remote location of these native villages – no roads link the communities to urban areas, so all materials and supplies must be flown or barged in. Additionally, difficult soils like permafrost, can often add to the expense of these tasks, Griffith said.

Alaska faces the challenge of finding funds to build water and sewer systems in communities lacking this modern infrastructure while federal and state funding plummets and construct costs climb.

Rural Alaska homes lacking running water and flushing toilets totals more than 3,300. The DEC estimates there is a gap of more than $660 million between the estimated cost for bringing these communities up to date and what is available.

Due to the lack of funding, the agency launched a state-funded private sector competition it hopes will lead to research and development of new water and sewer delivery services. Eighteen entities applied to participate in the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge, and the state chose three to work on proposals submitted for prototype development, with testing expected to start later this year. Each of these three entities will work with two villages on these proposals and testing, and projected costs cannot exceed $160,000 per home – an amount set by the federal Indian Service.

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