Some Thunder Mountain Mobile Park residents frustrated after more than a week of water issues

The sun sets on Friday, Jan. 17, at the Thunder Mountain Mobile Park in Juneau. Residents are under a boil water notice after several days of low-pressure. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

On Jan. 12, water pressure at Juneau’s Thunder Mountain mobile home park dropped to a trickle.

It took days to get fixed, and now they have to boil the water to use it. Some residents say they’re frustrated with how the situation was handled.

Lori James lives with her family in the Thunder Mountain Mobile Park. She answers a knock at the door with a quick “just a minute” before her teenage son opens it. Her husband lives there too. She has a 4-year-old grandson in the home, and another granddaughter in diapers lives there as well.

It’s cozy, warm and pleasantly noisy inside as her grandson runs around the kitchen. She points to the stove where she’s been boiling water to make food.

She says living without water — or with water she has to boil — is complicated. But it isn’t the first time, and they’re somewhat prepared. She swings open a cabinet door to show the 5-gallon jugs under her sink. The bottom shelf of the fridge is full of water jugs and juice as well.

But even with that stockpile, there are other problems. She can’t do laundry. It’s hard to stay clean. They were using baby wipes to bathe the kids.

“It was really inconvenient, you know. Sunday afternoon is when the water pressure started going,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘OK guys that’s it, everybody get your shower.’ Because I know we’re going to be out. We could be out for three days.”

James is talking about Sunday, Jan. 12. That’s when water pressure started to drop in the mobile home park. It got to the point where some residents say they had just a trickle coming through their faucets for days.

The road outside of Lori James’ home, where residents reported several days of low-flow water followed by a boil water notice on Friday, Jan. 17, at the Thunder Mountain Mobile Park in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

To understand what happened, it’s helpful to know that the mobile park is on a self-contained water system.

Wright Services Inc. owns the park and several other properties in Juneau. General Manager Chuck Collins said there are about 100 homes in the mobile park. They’re not connected to city water — it’s all well water. And if one person’s pipes freeze, or there’s a break, it takes just a few hours to drain the holding tanks that supply the whole park.

“Many of us have lived in a home where, if we were taking a shower and somebody flushed the toilet, all of the sudden we get a little hot water burn because the pressure on the cold side went down. Just imagine that on a larger scale, and that’s what we have,” Collins said.

The sun sets on Friday, Jan. 17, at the Thunder Mountain Mobile Park in Juneau. Residents had low water pressure for days and are now under a notice to boil any water they use. The neighborhood is not connected to city water. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

This isn’t the first water disruption that the mobile home park has had, or even the first since Wright Services took over management of the property. Collins said this time there were two leaks, and it took a few days to find and fix them. One of the leaks was just off of a main supply line. He said that’s no individual homeowner’s fault, just a break in a line.

But he said that some residents don’t know how to care for their pipes in the winter.

The city sent out a notice advising homeowners to run their water to keep pipes from freezing. That tip works well in a lot of other places in Juneau, but not in the Thunder Mountain park. It lowers everyone’s water pressure.

The last time there was a major leak at the park was 2018. Wright Services passed out bottled water to residents. Collins said they gave out some shower vouchers to the nearby swimming pool too.

But they didn’t do that this time. He said that’s because technically no one ran out of water.

“This time, everybody always had water so, while nobody is happy with me — and I don’t want to pretend like they are, and I don’t blame them any — they always had water, so they could cook, clean,” Collins said. “You know, it might take an hour to fill a toilet. It’s regrettable. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that at all. I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The sun sets on Friday, Jan. 17, at the Thunder Mountain Mobile Park in Juneau. Residents had low water pressure for days and are now under a notice to boil any water they use. The general manager for the park owner, Wright Services Inc., said cold weather causes low-flow issues in addition to some residents leaving their water running to keep pipes from freezing. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

That sentiment is deeply frustrating for Angel Brown, another mobile park resident.

She and other residents said they couldn’t do anything with that trickle of water. And it’s the property manager’s responsibility to provide usable water for the residents.

“We still can’t drink it. Cook with it. Brush our teeth with it. Technically wash dishes with it,” Brown said.

Brown has lived in the mobile park for about a decade. When asked about the low water pressure, she went around the back end of her mobile home and pointed to an access panel. There’s insulated skirting around the bottom of her home, and she said there’s heat tape wrapped around her pipes as well.

When she moved in, Brown said the former owner and manager of the park gave her a long lecture on the park’s atypical water system.

“How it’s under pressure, it’s a pressure pump. We have our own well, we’re not on city water and how to maintain that,” she said.

Brown said that since Wright Services took over the park, a lot of new residents have moved in, and she doesn’t think they’re getting the same kind of education about the water system that she did.

Brown said she had to go without a full shower for five days. She’s frustrated because she said she called several times to find out what was going on and felt like she was being brushed off. She talked to people who were on the property trying to find and fix the leaks, and she said they told her that it would be fixed “in an about an hour” three different times.

“I just didn’t feel my concern was being taken seriously,” she said.

Her water pressure is back, but there’s a notice from the state to boil it. That notice was issued by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s a precaution — essentially when the water pressure gets as low as it did in the park, the lines can get contaminated.

That notice will be in effect until bacteria testing results come back from the lab. That will likely happen this week.

Brown said she understands that people might think that going without water for a few days is no big deal. But she said that’s not really the point.

“It’s more than inconvenient when it doesn’t work,” she said. “And I’ve been criticized for complaining about a First World problem. But I’m in a First World. I live in a First World. I pay. You know, I bought my trailer. I bought my washer and dryer. I pay lot space rent. I pay for this service, and to have it out for four days is super frustrating.”

Both Brown and James said they want there to be more transparency in the way that Wright Services communicates about water and other issues in the park.

Meanwhile, Collins said there’s the possibility that the park could connect to city water as a backup to its current system. They’re in the early planning stages now, but it will take time and money to integrate the two systems. And it likely won’t happen in 2020.

James has her hands full with her grandkids. And it’s hard to get updates on what’s going on.

She said it would make things a lot easier if the property manager would give out information more quickly — something as simple as a Facebook page for residents to keep them updated about problems.

Rashah McChesney is a photojournalist turned radio journalist who has been telling stories in Alaska since 2012. Before joining Alaska's Energy Desk, she worked at Kenai's Peninsula Clarion and the Juneau bureau of the Associated Press. She is a graduate of Iowa State University's Greenlee Journalism School and has worked in public television, newspapers and now radio, all in the quest to become the Swiss Army knife of storytellers.

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