Juneau Has Cruise Industry Feeling Thirsty

The Coral Princess Cruise ship prepares to dock in Juneau. Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO - Juneau.
The Coral Princess Cruise ship prepares to dock in Juneau. Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO – Juneau.

Juneau’s water utility is not meeting peak demand during the summer cruise ship season. That caused the city to drastically reduce the amount of water it could sell to the cruise industry this year.

The city says the problem is due to aging wells at its main water source, Last Chance Basin – a problem that both the city and the cruise industry want to see fixed.

Six cruise ships docked in Juneau at once can guzzle about 1 million gallons of water a day. That’s 20 percent of Juneau’s daily water usage in the summer.

Cruise ships like to hook up two hoses when in port and buy as much water as they need. But the ships were limited to a total of 200,000 gallons a day this past summer due to unusually hot temperatures and an aging well system.

“There were many days where four ships in port had to basically share one hose over the course of a day,” says Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess Cruises. “So somebody would get the hose for a couple hours in the morning, somebody would get it a couple hours in the afternoon, a couple hours in the evening, which really cuts down the amount of water that we can purchase from the city.”

Cruise ships can get water from other ports, like Ketchikan, Skagway, Whittier, Seward, and Vancouver, but Day says ships prefer to buy water in Juneau because it’s right in the middle of a voyage. “If it was the first call or the last call, it might not be as crucial to buy water, but you’re basically about halfway through your itinerary,” he says. “Plus this is typically the longer of the port calls, so they’d like to be able to take as much water as we could without obviously creating a detriment to the city.”

David Crabtree, Juneau’s water utility superintendent, says, “We limited their use a bit but in previous years we let them take as much as they could take and it really put the hurt on our system.”

Juneau’s water supply comes from five wells in Last Chance Basin as well as from Salmon Creek Reservoir. On average, the utility distributes 3.5 million gallons of water a day. In the summer, that number can spike to five million gallons a day.

This recent summer saw those peaks, even with the ships taking a lot less. Crabtree says Juneau’s water needs come first; the cruise industry’s is a close second.

“It was balancing the struggle between keeping our reservoirs full and keeping the town adequately supplied versus having the ability to sell water,” he explains.

The wells at Last Chance Basin aren’t keeping up with demand. Production rates have declined so, as Crabtree explains, the utility keeps the wells running for up to 23 hours a day.

“Just because you design a water system that has the capacity of doing five million gallons a day doesn’t mean you do five million gallons a day every day,”  he says. “That hurts your wells. They need to be able to relax.”

Some of the wells are 42 years old. Juneau’s engineering director Rorie Watt says the best thing would be to replace one or two of them, “Our wells essentially are reaching the end of their useful life and so the most rational thing to do is just drill a new well 20 or 30 feet away in the same part of the aquifer.”

This could cost as much as $3 million. Juneau has requested a state grant to upgrade Last Chance Basin, but Watt says it’ll be at least another couple of years before the cruise ship industry can take as much water as they want.

Even though limits are difficult, the industry will be patient, according to Day.

“That’s part of the business, I guess,” he says. “We come to Juneau for a lot of reasons, and it’s not just to come here to take water. And so we understand if the city is having an issue with the system, and if we shouldn’t take water or have to limit the water we take so they can get their water system back on line, we’re happy to work with them.”

With limits in place this past summer, Juneau sold about 25 million gallons to cruise ships, translating into about $78,000 to the city.

Over the past ten years, cruise ships consumed the most water in 2006 – almost 98 million gallons – bringing the city roughly $273,000.

On average, cruise ships consume about 61 million gallons of Juneau’s water per year, about 11 percent of the city’s total summer production.

Juneau could begin work on the wells as soon as this summer if funding is secured. At a recent Public Works meeting, the committee approved appropriating $300,000 toward project planning – half would come from utility reserves and the other half from marine passenger fees.

Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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