Tuluksak water crisis enters 4th week

A water line leak in the Southwest Alaska community of Tuluksak has prompted a disaster declaration from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 4:57 PM AKST
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BETHEL, Alaska (KTUU) - A water line break in the Southwest Alaska community of Tuluksak is impacting most residents in the community, according to two Tuluksak School staff members.

In early February, a water line leak was discovered in Tuluksak. Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation maintenance workers examined the leak, but were unable to fix it. The Tuluksak Native Community and Gov. Mike Dunleavy both declared disasters for the community on Feb. 24.

“This affects the whole entire community,” Tuluksak School teacher Adam Swenson said.

In 2021, a fire destroyed the water treatment plant in Tuluksak, prompting a disaster declaration from Dunleavy in January of 2021. Water had to be flown to the rural community in bottles, and a temporary fix was installed.

The approximately 300 Alaskans living in Tuluksak do not have running water, and many get water for their homes from the Tuluksak School building. Yupiit School District Technology Coordinator Ty Shoemaker and Swenson said that Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation employees built a temporary water treatment plant in 2021 and ran two pipes from the plant to the school, which serves as the hub of most community activities.

A water line break in the Southwest Alaska community of Tuluksak is impacting most residents in...
A water line break in the Southwest Alaska community of Tuluksak is impacting most residents in the community.(Ty Shoemaker)

“The temporary water treatment plant provides running water to the school and subsequently to the teacher housing. Some of the pipe had to be buried underground as it crossed main roads to the village, and about three or four weeks ago, one of the pipes underground burst, and water was no longer able to be supplied to the school, and then subsequently to the teacher housing,” Shoemaker said. “They cannot find the leak because of the ground being frozen.”

Swenson said that since the pipe began leaking early in February, school employees have been driving a truck with a 250-gallon tank to the temporary water treatment plant that was built in 2021, then pumping that water into tanks at the school which holds approximately 1,500 gallons. Swenson said that the process of transporting water from the temporary tank to the school takes about an hour for each trip. That water is then distributed to teacher housing and allows the school to function. Without running water, activities have been canceled at the school due to safety concerns.

“It prevents us from being able to host any sort of sports, any sort of community events,” Shoemaker said. “We had to cancel our high school basketball home games here, because the water situation, and basketball, especially in these communities are very important, like, they draw a lot of people that want to come and watch.

“Our staff, our teachers, all of us are having to work overtime and work extra hard in doing a lot of extra preparation and thought and planning just so we can keep our school open, which is very draining on our teachers that you know, teaching in and of itself is a very demanding job and our teachers are having to, you know, go above and beyond, just so we can keep the school open.”

Swenson said that snow fell in Tuluksak last night and has drifted over the roads, making it difficult to transport water to the school, which is now low on water supply. Without running water, Tuluksak School students may be prevented from competing in Native Youth Olympics, which were scheduled to begin soon.

“If anything breaks, the system that we have in place, it all shuts down,” Shoemaker said. “They have told us that they will not be able to find the leak until springtime when the ground melts.”

Swenson and Shoemaker noted that disaster declarations are put in place to assist with these types of emergencies, and also said that there is a plan in place to install a permanent water treatment plant in the future.

“They are supposed to build a new bigger water plant, which should be essentially where the current temporary one is at and because that’s where they found to be a good well spot to pull for water,” Swenson said.