Indian Country

Water Infrastructure Challenges in Rural Alaskan Native Villages

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

By Matthew Richardson

I work with tribes and federal partners to protect human health and the environment in Indian Country, and my six years with EPA have been eye-opening. I learn more each day about the critical needs, challenging obstacles, and creative solutions required to provide basic water and sanitation services on tribal lands. The key is water infrastructure: pipes, pumps, holding tanks, etc. used to treat and move water, from source to tap to disposal of wastewater.

I’ll never forget my trip to the Alaska Native Village of Kongiganak. I knew that the challenges in Alaska were great, but there’s nothing like seeing firsthand what “lack of access” truly means. Because of the cold Alaskan climate, installing and maintaining proper water infrastructure is incredibly difficult. The population is widely dispersed and there are often fewer than 300 residents in each village. Many of the homes use a “honey bucket,” a five-gallon plastic bucket used to collect wastewater, that’s then dumped into a nearby lagoon.

 I work with EPA’s Alaska Native Village grant program, which provides grants to build drinking water and wastewater systems for these communities.  Since its inception in 1996, the program has distributed more than $479 million for 635 projects. During this period, the percentage of rural Alaskan homes with safe drinking water and wastewater access grew from 50% to 91%. This year alone, 400 additional households are scheduled to get improved access to such services.

 The real difficulties, however, come after the water infrastructure is built. Ongoing operation and maintenance in Alaska’s remote villages can be particularly challenging. 

To help water utility operators in tribal communities, EPA held a series of in-person training workshops across the country on how best to operate, troubleshoot, and maintain small water systems. Last year, we released online training based on the workshops.

EPA is also leading a multi-agency tribal infrastructure task force to identify solutions to these challenges. Through the task force, EPA and its four federal partners are working to reduce the administrative burden for tribes by streamlining and aligning agency policies, improve technical assistance coordination and develop web-based tools.

The needs are great and the challenges are difficult, but I am proud to help improve the health of these communities and protect the rural Alaskan environment.

About the author:  Matthew Richardson has been working for EPA since 2007 and currently manages EPA’s Clean Water Indian Set Aside Grant Program and Alaska Native Village and Rural Communities Grant Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Children's Health in Indian Country

By Margo Young

As a mom of two young children I relate to any parent or caregiver trying to create a healthy environment for children to thrive and grow. As a public health worker in the field of children’s health protection, I am also acutely aware that the environments we raise our children in this country are vastly different from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, state to state, and that these differences impact the health and well-being of our children.

This is especially true in Indian Country. While many Native American populations maintain intricate and ecologically interdependent relationships with the natural environment, these relationships have been impacted by environmental pollution, changes in subsistence lifestyles and political isolation, which threaten the health, wellness, and way of life of tribal communities. In light of Children’s Health Month, it is appropriate to highlight these differences, but also embrace the common goal of protecting our most vulnerable populations of children.

Children often bear a disproportionate impact from environmental contaminants. Living conditions, walkable communities, access to play areas and health care and limited resources are some of the challenges that tribal communities face in addressing environmental health issues. American Indian and Alaska Native children are more than twice as likely to suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases and are more likely to be hospitalized from these chronic conditions. These illnesses can be caused or exacerbated by substandard housing conditions and poor indoor air quality, including mold and moisture, wood burning, the use of pesticides and other chemicals, smoking and inadequate ventilation. Fixing and addressing these problems can prevent certain life-long impacts on children.

The good news is that there are many actions we can take to address these issues and make homes and communities healthier for children. You can find information and tips on improving indoor air quality in tribal communities from EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tribal Partners Program. Protecting the health of children is a compelling motivation to improve our environment — during Children’s Health Month and throughout the year. Take the initiative now and find out what you can do to improve children’s health.

About the Authors: Margo Young lives in Seattle and is the Region 10 Children’s Environmental Health and Environmental Education Coordinator and has been with EPA for over 5 years.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.