Published November 08, 2012
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Residents of a small Alaska Native village facing a severe water shortage are monitoring every precious drop they use as they struggle to stretch their reserves as far into winter as possible, with help coming from as far away as Minnesota.
"It's very, very clear that we won't have enough," Kivalina city administrator Janet Mitchell said. "But with our conservation efforts, we hope to get close enough."
That Kivalina even has water at all is a testament to efforts involving multiple partners, including two Minnesota churches that donated at least $1,600 for fuel that was used to run the Inupiat Eskimo community's water treatment system.
Other partners, including the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Northwest Arctic Borough, coordinated efforts that led to the temporary repair of a three-mile pipeline that pulls water for the village from the Wulik River.
Kivalina, about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage, has two big storage tanks that hold a total of about 1.2 million gallons of water. When full, that's a six-month water supply for the community's 400 residents, used for everything from drinking to cooking to bathing. But Kivalina has only July and August to fill the tanks before the pipeline freezes or the river gets too icy.
This year, the village was ready to fill the tanks but lacked the necessary funds for labor and the fuel to run the water transferring system. Then came the heavy August storms, which flooded Kivalina's landfill and broke the pipe in places, leaving the village school without clean water and postponing the start of classes for five weeks.
Water is an expected convenience for most Americans, but in Kivalina, it's not to be taken for granted. Homes there have never had running water, and residents use the village "washeteria" to shower and wash their clothes. They use buckets for human waste, which they then take to a landfill.
Jobs in the community are limited, with people working for local and tribal governments, the village store, clinic and the school, and a handful of other entities. Residents rely on subsistence activities, such as hunting for bowhead whales, for much of their food.
Kivalina's infrastructure problems are compounded by its uncertain future at its current location, a barrier reef in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast. Shore ice that used to protect the reef from waves generated by fierce storms has diminished with climate warming, leaving the shore susceptible to erosion. Residents hope to relocate to higher ground.
In September, Gov. Sean Parnell declared a disaster because of the storms, making state funds available for pipeline repairs.
But freezing temperatures arrived when the village had pumped only about half the water that could fit in its tanks for treated and untreated water.
State emergency spokesman Jeremy Zidek said the tanks together held more than 628,000 gallons of water in early October. By Nov. 1, the community had used more than 38,600 gallons. Zidek said that's a rate of slightly more than one gallon used per minute, far lower than the two-gallon rate officials estimated it would take to stretch available reserves for seven months.
The village isn't taking any chances, however, and severe restrictions remain in place. A few villagers also have taken it upon themselves to collect ice to melt for their own use. The washeteria is open only two days a week now instead of the usual six. Showers also are off-limits at the school, which does have its own water and sewer systems.
"Otherwise, people can drink water when they want," said school district superintendent Norm Eck. "And toilets have to flush."
In the meantime, the village is looking for a way to borrow or buy a portable tank between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons. The idea is to truck the tank to the frozen river, drill a hole in the ice and pump water into the container, which then could be transported back to the water plant to be treated, Mitchell said. So far, no help for that endeavor has been found, and disaster funds were only for emergency repairs, not for tanks or transporting water, Zidek said.
Amid the hardship and worries, Mitchell sees much to be thankful for, including residents' efforts to conserve and come up with solutions to the crisis, and the help they've received from so many outside the village.
Among those helpers are Grace Lutheran Church in Erskine, Minn., and Hope Lutheran Church in Fosston, Minn.
Hope Lutheran sent $500 to the village, and Grace sent $1,100. Grace pastor Timothy Lundeen and others have gone to Alaska villages for years to host summer vacation Bible schools and visited Kivalina for five days in 2011, taking back memories and stories to share with the congregation. In Kivalina, Lundeen tried traditional Alaska Native foods like fresh beluga whale and dried seal meat.
When he learned about this year's flooding and water contamination, he shared that with his congregation as well. People pitched in $600. Another $500 was added to the donation from a church mission fund, Lundeen said.
"People took out their purses and checkbooks," he said. "We passed an offering around, and they filled the baskets."