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Kivalina gets creative solving water shortage

January 25th, 2013 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

Kivalina may have gotten an unconventional Christmas present this year, but a welcome one nonetheless.

In the midst of the holidays, six 275-gallon water tanks arrived in the northwestern village via air carrier. They were donated by Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 367 of Anchorage, and transported at half-cost by Ryan Air and Northern Air Cargo.

The delivery represents the next step in reinstating a regular water supply for Kivalina - which was interrupted when fall storms damaged the pipe used to fill the community's water tank.

Due to those and other technical difficulties over a long fall, Kivalina's winter water quota wasn't filled before the big freeze came in. The community has been on severe restrictions ever since - conserving water by limiting washeteria use to two days a week (rather than six) and encouraging citizens to get their own water from ice melt and from the Kivalina River.

While they appreciate all those that have supplied their own drinking water, said city administrator Janet Mitchell, not all residents have the transportation and ability to retrieve their own and are reliant on the tank supply.

Community and borough leaders have been brainstorming and raising funds toward a solution all season, said Mitchell, trying to fill the tanks and get the community off restrictions.

Kivalina water plant manager Joe Swan is hard at work this week finishing and insulating a 26-foot sled that will haul the donated tanks, via bulldozer, to the Wulik River. From there, they'll use an extended auger to drill into the river ice and pump water into the tanks.

If they can do this without equipment breaking down, and without the water freezing inside the plastic containers, they can be emptied into the holding tanks and treated for community use. Mitchell hopes they'll be ready to head to the river within a week. While many big hurdles have been overcome thus far, the community could still use help paying for fuel and other supply expenses, Mitchell said.

None of the Kivalina residences have running water, but the community does use the washeteria for laundry and showers and to refill home supply. The school maintains running water, and has also been working hard to conserve its usage, Mitchell said.

The idea to donate the tanks came from Plumbers and Pipefitters member Michael Carey.

"People have good ideas all time but unless they act on them it's just an idea not an action," Carey said. "It was really a lot of people coming together."

Various public and private aid sources have come together to help Kivalina here and there over the last few months, some as far away as Minnesota. Churches in that state donated $1,600 after the August storms to help fun the water treatment system.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Northwest Arctic Borough assisted with a temporary repair of the water pipeline that pumps water from the Wulik during the warmer months.

The community worked hard just to get to the point where the school could open, which delayed the school year start by a month this fall. Mitchell said she hopes this next effort will get Kivalina closer to a normal routine.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at


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