A Rural Alaskan Native Village’s Journey for Safe Drinking Water

By Joel Beauvais

Here, Joel Beauvais peeks into the settling chamber of the package water treatment system

Here, Joel Beauvais peeks into the settling chamber of the package water treatment system

I recently returned from a work trip to Alaska, where I met with colleagues from EPA’s Alaska Operations Office and Alaska’s Department of Conservation to discuss a variety of water-related  issues and tour a few facilities, communities, and projects. I expected to be to be wowed by the good work Alaskans are doing to protect their waters while strengthening their communities, but what I didn’t expect was to be so moved by one native village’s journey to provide their families with in-home piped water and sewer lines for the first time.

Kwethluk is one of Alaska’s oldest, rural, and remote villages. It’s located in southwest Alaska and accessible only by air or water. Most in the nearly 800-person community still practice a subsistence lifestyle, relying on the nearby and bountiful Kwethluk River. Due to the surrounding challenging environment and perceived high costs to construct, operate, and maintain a drinking water and wastewater system, the village did not have access to community water and wastewater infrastructure. Villagers self-hauled potable water to their homes from a central distribution point and disposed of human waste in open buckets that were transferred in collection containers to a lagoon outside of town. These conditions presented not only quality of life issues but health and safety risks, too. Exposure to life-threatening bacteria and parasites spills was common and contamination quickly spread throughout the community by rain and airborne dust.

Kwethluk was the perfect candidate for EPA’s Alaska Native Village (ANV) program funding. Since 1996, the ANV program has distributed nearly $520 million in funds for sustainable and affordable in-home water and sanitation services in 240 Alaskan native villages and 60 non-native underserved communities. Funds are used for the planning, design, construction and/or repair of new or improved water and wastewater systems.

In 2009 EPA’s ANV program, in cooperation with U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State of Alaska, and the Indian Health Service, initiated the funding for the construction for Kwethluk’s first-ever drinking water and wastewater community facilities as well as the plumbing to every Kwethluk home.

Construction of sewer collection piping in the Kwethluk, Alaska community.

Construction of sewer collection piping in the Kwethluk, Alaska community.

After years of studying, planning, and hard work, today, more than 150 Kwethluk families are experiencing their first warm showers and flushing toilets in their bathrooms and clean, safe drinking water from their kitchen faucets. My EPA and Alaskan state colleagues gave me a tour of the community where I got to see the final phases of this monumental effort.

I also got to see the community’s new sewage disposal lagoon, water treatment plant, and a huge,318,000-gallon water storage tank, which were also built with support from the ANV program.

Here is an image of the inside workings of the Kwethluk water treatment plant.

Here is an image of the inside workings of the Kwethluk water treatment plant.

The heart of any arctic or subarctic water system like the one in Kwethluk is the water treatment plant.  Not only does the water treatment plant treat the water from the Kwethluk River to meet EPA drinking water standards, the water treatment plant also heats and circulates the water throughout town so the water mains do not freeze. This circulation requires twice as many water mains as a conventional system as well as additional heat, which substantially increases operational costs. To help reduce costs, the Kwethluk water treatment plant is exploring the use of an innovative remote monitoring system that would send automatic alerts via wireless system to the local maintenance employee of imminent issues such as freezing pipes, water quality problems, or excessive energy use. These alerts help prevent costly maintenance fixes that require labor and materials to be flown in, offset the plant’s technical and management support costs, as well as could ensure high quality drinking water.

While it was moving to learn about Kwethluk’s long journey to have its first in-home water and sewer access, there are still over 35  communities in Alaska that don’t have access to a safe, modern drinking water and sanitation system—which is unacceptable. EPA remains committed more than ever to working with our state, federal, local, and tribal partners to ensure that every American, no matter where they live, has access to safe drinking water and modern wastewater management where and when they need it.