Alaska Tribal consortium turns on the water works

By Andrew Jensen
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) January 2011

Any engineer takes pride in seeing a project through to completion, especially those that come with unique design challenges.

In rural Alaska, the only thing greater than the challenges of construction are the rewards of bringing projects to the finish line that deliver clean, safe water to remote villages for the first time.

Managing projects from the permafrost of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the rainy Southeast means no project is typical for Matt Dixon. Dixon is director of operations for the Division of Environmental Health and Engineering, a part of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

The lack of clean running water and proper sewage disposal is a leading cause of preventable disease in rural Alaska villages. Respiratory, gastrointestinal and skin diseases are rampant in areas without safe water supplies.

So when the faucets finally turned on in Goodnews Bay in 2010 after a 10-year project and clean water started flowing to the village’s 68 homes, Dixon gets a satisfaction that goes beyond an engineering success.

He knows he’s improving, if not directly saving, lives.

“It’s pretty exciting to see it because it does take so long,” Dixon said. “But the coolest thing about it is there have been several studies conducted by the (Centers for Disease Control) that talk about the health benefits of having water and sewer.”

Studies have shown that death rates for children are cut by 55 percent when safe water is brought to a community. Gastrointestinal problems dropped by 57 percent and clinic visits by 58 percent.

Others have demonstrated that children are five times more likely to have respiratory infections and 11 times more likely to get pneumonia compared to children who live in homes with running water.

Dixon is likely one of the most knowledgeable people in the country about the challenges of serving isolated communities. He’s been with ANTHC since 1997, when the federal government still managed health services for Alaska Natives.

The ANTHC and Southcentral Foundation combined to take that responsibility from Indian Health Services in 1998. Prior to serving Alaska Natives, Dixon worked in New Mexico delivering rural water projects to the remote Navajo villages.

Alaska Natives and the Navajo have the highest unmet needs of any American Indian populations, Dixon said.

“The biggest advantage down there is that most of the time you can get in and out,” Dixon said of reaching remote Navajo villages via dirt roads that can be rendered impassable by rain or snow storms. “Here, it’s somewhat more difficult.”

“Somewhat” is somewhat of an understatement.

Alaska has a very short window of months for major construction to take place, and managing permafrost issues, dealing with erosion and the logistical challenges of delivering barge-loads of materials upriver to work sites make design and planning critical tasks.

But Dixon noted that the main reason a project like Goodnews Bay – which took the village from honey buckets to running water, flush toilets and hot showers – lasted for 10 years is because of funding challenges, not construction ones.

Thirty years ago, about 75 percent of rural Alaska households did not have running water or flush toilets. Today, about 75 percent have access to clean water either through piped delivery systems or through haul services (a water tank inside, sewer tank outside and replaced or emptied as needed).

Still, more than 5,800 households lack a safe water supply and the total cost for bringing first-time service to these homes is $358 million, according to ANTHC estimates. Another $368 million is needed to address substantial health needs, with the total documented need topping out at $832 million for rural Alaska.

Multiple funding streams pay for rural water and sanitation projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Indian Health Services and state matches to federal spending.

From a peak of more than $120 million available in the 2004 fiscal year, funding for Alaska rural water projects is down to about $70 million in fiscal year 2011. Although ANTHC received a one-time boost in the 2010 fiscal year of more than $61 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal appropriations for last year were the lowest in 10 years.

The decline in federal funding – which is partly due to the loss of appropriations power when the late Sen. Ted Stevens became a member of the minority party following the 2006 elections and then lost his 2008 bid for re-election – has widened the gap between need and available funding from $339 million in 2007 to $648 million in 2011.

In the anti-earmarking culture in Washington – where Alaska in particular has been put under a microscope – stepping up funding for rural villages will be a tough sell.

“In this day and age, if there is money set aside for a particular state, it’s going to be under a lot of scrutiny,” Dixon said. “There’s a lot of scrutiny on Alaska. Stevens was so good at funneling money, we suspect there’s been a backlash against the programs he set up that have lived on so well.”

Because the need is so great and funding is limited, projects like Goodnews Bay are completed in segments as money is available. A $15 million to $20 million project like Goodnews Bay would eat up the lion’s share for a single year if it was attempted all at once.

Instead, projects are completed in stages from the water source, sewer lagoon, community facilities, treatment plant, distribution, collection loops and connections to homes.

“There’s just not enough money to build it all in one whack,” Dixon said.

Goodnews Bay was just one of several projects or segments completed in 2010. Among them: Chignik Bay has a completed community-wide piped sewer collection system; Kasigluk and Kipnuk now have water treatment plants and a community washeteria; Port Lions received sewer improvements that stopped raw sewage overflows; and Numan Iqua is now completely off honey buckets with a completed, community-wide piped water and sewer system, water treatment plant and sewage disposal system.

In 2011, among others, Pitkas Point will receive piped water and sewer system to homes; Chenega Bay will see a new water treatment plant completed; Hughes and Kasigluk will receive piped water and sewer to homes; and Northway will get individual water, sewer flush and haul units.

Dixon recalled talking to a father from Chevak, a village about 150 miles west of regional “hub” Bethel in Southwest Alaska that has had running water for a few years now.

The father told Dixon his older kids were sick “all the time” before the village got running water, requiring constant flights to Bethel and Anchorage. The father told Dixon his younger kids don’t get sick anymore since running water started flowing.

“That’s inspirational,” Dixon said. “People are living better.”