Diomede’s outdated water system recovers only partially after failure; residents make do with snow melt and run-off

Diomede in November 2010. (Photo: KNOM file)

Earlier this month, residents of Diomede had to rely on melting snow and run-off as drinking water for 11 days. The community’s running water was restored on Monday evening, but local experts say they aren’t out of the woods yet, as the system is still not fully functioning.

According to Laura Achee, a spokesperson with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), part of the limited information ADEC received last week was that the water tank was inoperable, and the system was having issues.

“We have heard that they also had some sort of failure in their system; we’re not sure. It may have been a pump failure,” she said. “As a result of that, the main tank is either partially or fully frozen, so the system is nonoperational. We don’t have a lot of details on what caused it or why that is.”

Rachel Lee is the director of the Office of Environmental Health for Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). Lee says there were a myriad of issues that caused the system to stop working, including: rust buildup in the water storage tank, which negatively impacted the circulation pump; the old outdated pressure pump failed; and the heating system went down so water froze in the tank.

The tribal coordinator for Diomede, Frances Ozenna, says the local school had to shut down, and this became an emergency situation. If NSHC hadn’t stepped in, she said, then the community could’ve been in a much worse position. Lee says it took three days for the remote maintenance worker (RMW) Luke Smith, and Orville Akhinga, Jr., from Anchorage, to assess the system and make repairs.

Ahkinga is originally from Diomede, and Ozenna says he is familiar with their water system. Lee says they arrived on the 19th after being weathered out from the community on previous flight attempts.

Besides the main source of filtered water, which is accessible through the “washeteria,” the small island community only has runoff water from the mountain and melted snow available to them.

Ozenna herself collects water from snow and melts it for drinking, but she says it still requires filtering before she uses it. According to Lee, the community storage tank only has enough water left to last about a month and a half if residents’ estimates and rationing are correct.

Ozenna says it’s typically the water operator’s job to collect water during the summer, starting in June once things thaw, and to make sure the tank is filled for the entire winter season.

The local water operator position is currently vacant, but Lee says once the community identifies someone to fill that role, then NSHC can train them on Diomede’s water system and help alleviate future issues.

Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome.

Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located.

Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.

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