Drinking water a top concern for local leaders after Western Alaska storm

water and supplies in chevak
A supply of bottled water and ready-made meals are available for community members at Chevak’s tribal office. (Emily Schwing/Special to Alaska Public Media)

Hundreds of people in Western Alaska have been unable to drink water straight from the tap this week following the storm surge from the remnants of Typhoon Merbok. Residents in Chevak have been boiling their water for the last five days.

After the storm, Chevak was without power for nearly three days. At the water plant, pressure in a pump fell below a state required threshold and triggered the community’s boil-water notice. The notice was lifted for water at the local school early Thursday.

On Wednesday, plant operator John Atchak was still waiting for test results from a lab in Bethel where he was required to send samples three days ago.

”Well, when they’re not calling me, it’s good,” he said.

Still, if it were up to him, the community would be better prepared.

“Yeah, I would have tons of bottled water in here ready to distribute if we lose any water pressure,” Atchak said.

Robert Paniak has been boiling his water all week. He opted not to buy bottled water because he said it’s too expensive.

“Yeah, it is more than a gallon of gas I think,” Atchak said.

He said he is paying just over $5 for a gallon of gas in Chevak right now. At the Chevak Company Corporation store, a gallon of water is priced at $11.00.

Justina Cholok is a clerk at the store. She and coworker Mamie Napoleon said there’s still plenty of bottled water in stock, but that’s because Chevak residents have options beyond the city water system. Many choose to collect it themselves in rain barrels.

“Yep, it’s really good,” said Cholok. “It’s fresher than sink water.”

But Chevak City Clerk Cecelia Atchak said she’s getting tired of boiling water every time she gets thirsty.

“We use water for everything. That’s our main source for cooking, washing dishes, for laundry…” she said.

Tribal leadership in Chevak has not requested water from the state, but the tribal office has been fielding calls and emails from nonprofit organizations willing to send water. The tribe has delivered bottled water locally to roughly 20 elders over the last few days.

Under most circumstances, a community would have to make a formal request for bottled water, according to a spokesperson with the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. So far, Hooper Bay is the only community to have done so. That community received an emergency drinking water delivery from the state Tuesday.

Further north in the Norton Sound region, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has deployed staff from its Remote Maintenance Worker program to assess serious water-related concerns in at least four villages after reports of serious concerns to drinking water safety there.

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