Tuluksak teachers trying to manage after 2 weeks without running water

The Western Alaska village of Tuluksak (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

The nearly 300 people living in the Southwest Alaska village of Tuluksak are still waiting for help for the school, which hasn’t had access to running water since Feb. 9.

“And that’s really a tragedy for the entire village because not only do we serve children lunches, we serve Elders breakfast and lunch as well,” said Principal Kary DelSignore.

Tuluksak is located about 35 miles northeast of Bethel. DelSignore and Yupiit School District Superintendent Scott Ballard said that many things in the community are dependent on a water system that is barely functional.

“We have to have water to feed our kids. We need a safe place for the kids to go to school. You know, you need to be able to shower at the school, the teachers need to be able to shower at teacher housing,” Ballard said.

They said that the situation is forcing teachers to do more with less.

“We have to make sure that we’ve got people who can pump water, which means that our teachers are often working now seven days a week. Because they’re assisting, still, with the pumping water, or opening the building, or assisting getting the pumps running, or making sure valves are, you know, open or closed to ensure that the water system works,” DelSignore said. “And so teachers are now having to become experts in water management.”

The school district has purchased two new 500-gallon holding tanks, DelSignore said, which provides more holding capacity. But the district is working with a two-wheel-drive pickup truck and can only transport 200 gallons of water at a time from the village water plant over to the school.

“The other day we had to stop hauling water because we had issues getting the truck backed up the hill to the water plant because we don’t have a four-wheel-drive truck to do that,” DelSignore said. “So, you know, if we can’t get a permanent solution with someone coming out there, then we’re going to look at needing funds to buy a four-wheel-drive truck to continue hauling water.”

To make matters worse, the village generator has gone down a number of times due to a lack of fuel. But that generator is a necessity for pumping water, so the school district responded by providing fuel.

“The community is challenged with having enough fuel. We’ve given, you know, we have an agreement with them to provide them with fuel because they don’t have enough fuel. And then our vehicles are run down and barely limping along because we haven’t had the funds because of flat funding from the State of Alaska for school districts,” Ballard said.

It’s not clear when the problem could be resolved.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which loaned the water plant to the village after a catastrophic fire in 2021, has sent staff to try and figure out a solution. But Ballard said that they haven’t been able to find the leak in the waterline.

“It would be great to have a state of emergency declared so that we could bring in the National Guard or someone else who has the resources to come in and locate the leak, to get up and fix it,” DelSignore said. “Those are things that the village does not have the infrastructure, the materials, the equipment to do at this time. The school district does not have that equipment or the resources to do that.”

So far no assistance has arrived.

Students have been on minimum days. But with generator issues, homes are cold too. No water means less hand-washing, which makes people susceptible to illnesses, particularly respiratory, skin, and gastrointestinal infections. This impacts student athletes and extracurricular activities, which affects student mental health as well.

“With no heat in your house, so we’ve got kids that, you know, are struggling to sleep because they’re cold. When we can’t provide meals, those kids, many of them don’t eat; the fishing has been down. I mean, there’s just a lot going on in the village and they depend on the school,” DelSignore said. ”So yes, their mental health and the teachers’ mental health is affected because we want to provide these things. And it’s difficult not to be able to do that.”

Until the state responds, teachers in Tuluksak will continue to haul water and make it through the school day. And the question still remains: would a situation like this have remained without intervention for this long in any of Alaska’s cities?

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