The U.S. Department of Agriculture is granting $3.6 million to Interior Alaska villages to help improve water systems and landfills.
The grants will pay for new well and wastewater treatment systems for homes in Rampart and improvements to McGrath’s water system. They’ll also fund the engineering and environmental reports for a new solid waste facility in Ruby, new landfills in Rampart and Tanacross, and repairs to Nenana’s wastewater treatment system.
Julia Hnilicka, the USDA Rural Development director for Alaska, said it’s important for federal agencies to recognize that water and waste management is part of rural health.
“With our communities in Alaska, health isn’t just a hospital,” she said. “Health starts from your drinking water, to waste disposal, to being able to have telemedicine appointments along the way.”
Hnilicka grew up in Nenana, and she said shipping costs and harsh weather often delay repairs to infrastructure in rural Alaska. Now, climate change is adding additional challenges as those water and waste systems age.
“A lot of the infrastructure was built all around the same time, and so we’re seeing aging of that infrastructure at the same time,” she said. “That is putting additional stress on those systems and on those communities.”
Hnilicka said her visits to communities throughout Alaska this year underscored the need to improve waste management in many villages.
“It was entirely distressing, and I think about it constantly,” she said. “Young children are pushing their bikes around, and right next to where they’re playing is where you dump human waste into pretty much cardboard boxes that are then picked up. And you think about not only how unsanitary that is but what message that sends to our children.”
The USDA is partnering with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to complete this latest group of projects in the Interior. Villages throughout Alaska can apply to the grant program year-round through their local Rural Development office.
Early next year, Hnilicka said, the USDA plans to launch a rural partners network meant to give local leaders better access to grant applications and other federal resources.