Nearly $1 Billion Needed To Modernize Rural Sanitation Systems

Members of the Legislative Bush Caucus were told last week in a “Lunch and Learn” session on rural sanitation almost a billion dollars is needed to build, replace, and maintain rural sanitation systems. But, the gap between the level of need and funding is widening.

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State and tribal representatives told members of the Bush Caucus it would take about $900 million to do what’s needed to bring modern sanitation to all Alaskans.

Last year the state put about $9 million and federal agencies put $51 million toward rural sanitation in Alaska. The combined $60 million is less than half of allocations 10 years ago.

David Beveridge, the director of project management at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC, says Alaska is competing with other states for its share of a shrinking pool of federal funding.

“If you look through the village safe water program, it gets matched with federal dollars on a 25-75 percent ratio,” Beveridge said. “So for any 25 dollars the federal government will kick in the 75 dollars. So that’s been a big component of the funding in Alaska and that’s gone down.”

The issue is one of public health, according to Bill Griffith, the Facility Program Manager for Village Safe Water with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He told Legislators recent studies show Alaskans without clean water and flush toilets experience dramatically higher rates of hospitalization for respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

“Those rates were anywhere from 5 times greater to 11 times greater in villages in Alaska with less than 10 percent of homes served,” Griffith said.

And Griffith says, a significant number of Alaskan communities are un-served or under-served.

“There’s about 30 villages around the state that don’t have running water and sewer to any homes, coupled with about a dozen or so communities that have what we call small haul systems where they use trailers to bring water to homes and then they use different trailers to pick up sewage,” he said.

Climate change is adding to the magnitude of the issue.

“We’re at Noatak right now where part of the ground under the water plant is frozen and part of it is becoming unfrozen,” Gavin Dixon, who manages a Rural Energy Initiative for ANTHC, said. “There’s 15-inches of differential in the facility. So the building is cracking, and falling apart. So it’s an issue that’s happening now and it’s happening in a lot of different communities.”

Dixon says energy audits show that investments of an average of $80,000 per community for little fixes would return much more in energy cost savings in just four or five years. He says those savings in energy costs would boost local economies and cut state spending for power cost equalization subsidies.

Rep. Neal Foster, of Nome, says improving rural sanitation would boost the state’s economy. And he says Legislators would create an uproar if they experienced the same conditions.

“Boy, if we ever took every toilet out of this building, you know it would be a revolution we wouldn’t stand for, people, essentially living in a third-world type situation,” Foster said. “So I think it’s something that needs to be made a priority. I think that we have to bring people at the lowest rungs up before we can move forward as a state.”

Agencies and tribes are collaborating to improve operator training and reduce operation costs. And they working with the private sector to create innovative designs well suited to Arctic conditions.

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Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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