On Oct. 22, the water pressure in St. George — a tiny, remote community in the Pribilof Islands — suddenly dropped, and the water became unfit to drink.
“It’s been pretty murky,” Anastasia Kashevarof said. “It’s brown even boiling it. I don’t trust it to wash my dishes.”
St. George has about 35 residents. It’s located 750 air miles west of Anchorage.
Kashevarof said supplies of bottled water went fast. Some homes were unaffected, but most had to haul five-gallon buckets of water from the public safety building to their homes to flush toilets and mop floors.
As a working mom and a mother of two, Kashevarof said it became difficult to keep up with it all.
“Trying to find your friend’s house that has a good supply of running water so I can borrow their shower to bathe my family,” she said.
Tribes, Native corporations and other groups donated bottled water, which helped. But as the days wore on, city crew still couldn’t pinpoint the leak.
Mark Merculief, the mayor of St. George, said the problem was a mystery until Nov. 16, when water engineers arrived to track it down.
“We’ve narrowed it down to a break, like a one-inch line to the old houses,” Merculief said.
When the crew dug into the ground, they were shocked at what they found: a clean break in the pipe that was right on top of a huge rock.
Merculief began to wonder if the line was damaged in an earthquake that gave St. George a stiff jolt just a few days before the water system failed.
“The way the break was, you couldn’t have a cleaner cut go through,” he said. “We thought, ‘Wow, it wouldn’t take much to break this with the amount of stress this was under.’”
It took a day to repair the line. But the problems aren’t over yet.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a boil water notice. Cindy Christian, a Drinking Water Program manager for DEC, said it takes time to lift an order.
“They’ll be running chlorine through the system to disinfect the water lines,” she said. “As soon as we get three satisfactory samples, we will be able to lift the boil water notice as long as they maintain pressure.”
It may be a while for things to go completely back to normal, but Kashevarof said she feels grateful to the city crew and engineers for their hard work.
“I know it’s frustrating for everyone in the community, especially the city workers trying to resolve this issue,” she said.
As for the mayor, he sees this incident as a learning experience.
“You got to know the ins and out of your systems here, and that’s a great way to learn it, and also to be able to in the future in meetings with — whether it’s federal or state agencies — to be able to explain situations like that,” said Merculief.
The exact cause of the water line failure may never be known.