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Projects in Unalakleet set to revamp, replace aging water system

Among others, multimillion-dollar upgrades will tackle water treatment, well development
Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 11:34 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Earlier this year, the City of Unalakleet became one of several communities to declare its water crisis a disaster.

Now, a few months later, it’s on its way to multiple overhauls centered on its water system and related infrastructure.

“It’s been so draining on everyone in this community, just to have to deal with the water situation we have,” said Unalakleet Mayor Kira Apaachuaq Eckenweiler. “To have dirty water, no water or just very little water to be able to do basic things, it takes a toll on people. Our economy, too, has been suffering, because of the lack of water.”

RELATED: As aging water system is challenged further by brutal weather conditions, Unalakleet formally declares a disaster

Following the disaster declaration in the city, the state — primarily via the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation — and other groups are now involved in projects largely centered on water treatment improvements, development of a well in the town and the replacement of the water main in the city.

“This next year, we will start constructing a new water system,” Eckenweiler said. “They also will replace lines within our community, main water lines, and those old, eroding lines will be changed out, which is so exciting.

“We are constantly on boil water notice. There’s been more days when we’ve been on boil water notice than we haven’t the past year.”

Funding for the projects is coming from multiple sources, including the Indian Health Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Department of Environmental Conservation timelines show most of the work on a handful of projects is expected to be completed before the end of 2023.

According to Unalakleet City Manager Moe Zamarron, some projects are as far along as the design phase.

“We’re answering pre-design questions,” he said. “Working on those right now, hope to have those out soon. Design should start shortly, and they’ll be handing out the contract for that.”

Zamarron added that other people are also interested in leak detection processes.

“As important as it is to have the pipes, if a leak occurs, it’s very beneficial, when you only have a limited supply of water at a given time, to be able to locate the leak quickly,” he said, noting support from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Idaho State University, as well as others in the region. “They are working together to help us form a leak detection plan.”

With temperatures that often dip well below zero in Unalakleet in the winter, leaks occur and freezing happens quickly, Zamarron said, and the sooner they can focus on the leaks, the better.

“We’re kind of in a pickle here,” he continued, pointing to the additional burden the COVID-19 pandemic has presented. “We’re being told the proper procedure for hygiene during this COVID period is a lot of washing. At the same time, we’re telling them don’t wash so much, or ‘conserve, do what you can to save water,’ so it’s a conflict of message there that we’re looking forward to getting past.

“It’s a challenge ... We have to make sure we provide what we can for the community but still remind people, we’re on boil water, so please conserve.”

ADEC Division of Water Facilities Section Program Manager Carrie Bohan explained the breakdown of funding in an email.

“The State of Alaska Village Safe Water Program, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA Rural Development, funded approximately $72M in new rural sanitation infrastructure planning, design and construction projects in State Fiscal Year 2022,” Bohan wrote. “In addition, the Indian Health Service, EPA and Denali Commission allocated approximately $55M in funding for similar projects.”

Data from the DEC shows three main grant-funded projects in Unalakleet: Water treatment improvements for the design and construction of water treatment plant improvements, including a new heat exchanger and backup generator, at a price point of approximately $1.9 million; the Trail Creek Well Development project, to conduct well exploration and, if a viable source is found, develop a well field to serve as a new water source, at a cost of about $8.9 million; and water main replacement, to design and construct a replacement for the water distribution system, totaling about $15.6 million, with money beyond an initial $10.2 million to be funded down the road.

“At any given moment, hundreds of sanitation projects are underway.” Bohan wrote of statewide developments.

Bohan’s department also houses the Village Safe Water Program, which provides sanitation infrastructure support to communities such as Unalakleet.

As for developments in her community, Eckenweiler said she can’t wait until the day her community has clean water flowing and doesn’t have to worry about it running out.

“To know that, while we have a few more years, to know there’s something coming, I can’t wait to be able to splash around in a lot of water,” she said. “I’ll be hesitant, because I’m so used to having to save water, but I can’t wait until the day we have water flowing and we don’t have to worry about it running out.”

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