ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Inupiat Eskimo villagers in a small Alaska community are facing six long months of melting ice and snow nearly every time they want to cook a meal or bathe, after freezing temperatures hit before workers could fill the village's two large storage tanks with water.
Officials in Kivalina had hoped to pull more than 1 million gallons from the nearby Wulik River before it froze over — enough to allow residents to cook, clean and keep its Laundromat, or "washeteria," open all winter.
But city administrator Janet Mitchell said Tuesday that crews were "packing it up because it's just too cold to pump." At 8 a.m., the temperature was 26 degrees in the community 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Kivalina has only enough water stored to keep its school open through mid-March — if the rest of the village forgoes the luxury of showers and washing machines at the washeteria.
Superintendent Norm Eck said the school — which opened late this year because of water problems — has to be operational until at least May 16, if not longer.
"Those kids deserve to have a good education, and they deserve to have their school," Eck said.
Mitchell was preparing a memo to the village's 400 residents saying that because of the water shortages, the washeteria would be open only two days a week — likely Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the details of the conservation plan were still being ironed out.
Residents may have expected this news given the weather problems this year, "but they aren't going to be happy," Mitchell said. "I don't want to cut them off completely. It'll be tricky."
As of Saturday, 667,000 gallons had been put into the tanks. Some of the water had been treated, but some had to wait for mud to settle.
"At that point, they would have to ration water pretty substantially," said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security, which had not officially been informed of the shutdown. The city has no way to melt massive amounts of snow or ice in winter.
Kivalina is on a barrier reef in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast — about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. The community is like a lot of Alaska villages off the road system. Conveniences that most Americans take for granted are still a dream.
According to the state Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Department, only the village school and clinic have their own water and sewer systems. Residents haul their own bathroom waste to a landfill.
Kivalina's infrastructure problems are compounded by its uncertain future at its current location. Shore ice that used to protect the reef from waves generated by fierce Chukchi Sea winter storms has diminished with climate warming, leaving the shore susceptible to erosion. The community hopes to relocate to higher ground.
The water tanks, even when full, hold just a six-month supply for the entire community. Every February, the washeteria closes to showers and laundry so the school will have enough. Water is doled out to use at home.
The city's water tanks hold 670,000 and 500,000 gallons.
The community has just two months — July and August — to extract water from the Wulik River. The pipe freezes in winter, and there's too much ice in the river during May and June.
In July, Mitchell said, the community was ready to fill tanks but did not have funds on hand due to a problem with a state revenue sharing application.
Late summer rainstorms damaged the PVC pipe and washed some of it to sea. Repairs were made but more storms continued to muddy the water, and they couldn't pump until the mud settled. Freezing temperatures cause slush to jam the line.
Ice started forming this week, forcing the shutdown.
The earlier water problems delayed the opening of school for five weeks. The school simply will not open unless it can operate its water and sewer system.
"You have to be able keep things hygienic," said Eck, the superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. "That includes flush toilets as well as water for washing as well as for cooking, because we have to prepare meals."
He is hoping that state or Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium officials will come up with a way to make more water in winter.