Frozen pipes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta means going back to honey buckets and packing water

Bethel resident, Renee Gregory, points at her pants stained from liquids that backed up into her bathtub after her drainage pipes froze last week. (Greg Kim / KYUK)

Across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, temperatures have reached far below zero for weeks, freezing pipes in homes across the region. For many people, that means a return to a way life before running water and flush toilets. 

Bethel resident Renee Gregory is relearning how to use a honeybucket. Inside her home, she’s snaking a metal auger down her toilet. Every day for the past week, she’s been working to free up her drains since her house pipes froze in temperatures reaching almost -50 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill. 

“So this is my bathtub,” Gregory said, pointing at her tub full of brown liquid. “It looks like oily coffee.”  

Before Gregory had realized her drainage pipes were frozen, she was using the sink, running the dishwasher, and flushing the toilet, only to find it all backed up into her bathtub.  

“It’s pretty gross,” Gregory said.

Gregory has had to bail out the brown water from her bathtub, bucket by bucket, and carry it outside in the freezing cold to empty it in her sewer tank.

“And do it again, and again, and again and again,” Gregory said.

Since she can’t use her toilet, Gregory has come up with other ways to go to the bathroom.

“I was driving all the way across town to my office to use the bathroom until very recently, where I’ve broken down, and now I am using a honey pot,” Gregory said.

Gregory grew up using a honey bucket when her family lived in a dry cabin in Denali.

“And I just don’t have fond memories,” she said. “When I was a kid, that was my least favorite chore, cleaning the honey bucket.”

Gregory has tried various methods to clear her drains. She’s added heat tape and insulation around the pipes. She’s poured hot water down the drains, rock salt, vinegar, and baking soda.

“And it hasn’t drained, not even a little bit,” Gregory said. “So I just sat down on my chair and cried for a little while, because I just feel so defeated.”

Gregory isn’t alone. Across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, people are dealing with the effects of extreme cold. 

Households in the community of Lower Kalskag got running water installed last summer, and Mayor Walter Morgan says some homeowners haven’t yet learned how to maintain the pipes in the winter.

“There have been people, newly hooked up, they’re still froze. I told them to turn on the switches,” Morgan said.

Morgan says the water pipe installations came with heat tape and circulators to keep the water moving, but he says some people didn’t use them.

“They thought it used a lot of electricity so they didn’t plug it in,” Morgan explained.

Once the pipes are completely frozen, heat tape won’t thaw out the pipes. So people have returned to packing water from the water plant and using honey buckets, like they did before piped water and sewer. 

In the eroding village of Newtok, Tribal Administrator Andrew John hasn’t had to deal with pipes freezing up, yet.

“Well technically we don’t have any pipes, because we have no running water,” John said about Newtok’s homes.

But the village health clinic does have a piped system, and the extreme cold has put it at risk of freezing. So the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation chartered a flight with an emergency shipment of fuel to keep the building warm. 

John doesn’t seem fazed. He says his community, and all the communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, are used to dealing with the challenges of winter. 

But in Kwethluk, City Manager Boris Epchook says the past two-week stretch of temperatures consistently far below zero is something new. Kwethluk reports about 10 houses and three businesses with pipes that froze or burst.

“We had problems last year, but the magnitude wasn’t this big,” Epchook said.

Alaska Climate Specialist Rick Thoman agrees. 

“It’s quite abnormal. Certainly at this point, the duration of the cold, the duration is certainly significant,” Thoman said.

He also said the recent cold snap starting two weeks ago ranks as the seventh coldest stretch on record in Bethel for that timeframe. However, the forecast shows temperatures rising 50 degrees later this week. 

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