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.

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