In 1995, Governor Tony Knowles set a goal to put the honey bucket in the museum within a decade. That exhibit is one step closer to reality in Kwethluk, a community of 700 located 15 miles upriver of Bethel. Residents are starting receive water and sewer service in their homes.
After years of digging water lines, installing showers, water heaters, and toilettes, Kwethluk’s first house was connected earlier this month and about 18 homes are now online.
Frances Harley Uttereryuk had water service turned a couple weeks ago. He has a newly installed kitchen sink, tub, shower, and toilet.
“It really helps the house now,” said Uttereryuk. “You don’t need to pack water, don’t need to throw out your honey bucket into the sewer now. The house is a lot cleaner now.”
Convenience and comfort certainly matter, but there are proven health benefits to installing full water and sewer. Residents of unserved communities experience higher rate of skin infections and respiratory diseases.
Cindy Hautala of Kwethluk has seen the health impacts.
“I think that a lot of the, like the strep throat, the scabies or lice or whatever you had, I think that if a lot of people had running water, we wouldn’t have so many problems healthwise for everyone,” said Hautula.
The community has known that for a long time and the city has been pushing for water service since the late 90s. The 41 million dollar project is funded by several state and federal agencies. Max Angellan serves as vice mayor of Kwethluk. He says the city has had time to prepare to run and take care of the system, estimated at half million dollars per year.
“[We’re] having certain people trained,” said Angellan. “We’re aware of the administration and eventual responsibility for maintaining and operating the system once its completed.”
And it will be some time before the system is done. The first residents to receive water service live on the east side of town, but the west side still needs water and sewer lines plus the installation of showers and toilets. According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Homes on the western half will not get service until at least 2015.
Merna Spein is expecting water service soon.
“It’s amazing cause you see it with your own eyes and have a flushing toilet and you have water running, it’s pretty coo. I never thought that it would be able to happen here,” said Spein.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, there are about 40 communities without village-wide water and sewer, that’s 6 thousand homes without flush toilets or running water. The state estimates that it would cost nearly 700 million dollars to fund the remaining projects.
That said, council member Boris Epchoock is starting to take a historical perspective.
“Maybe I should open a museum, detailing the honey bucket, detail how prevalent it was in the period before the water and sewer system was constructed,” said Epchook.
But before anyone can break ground on the museum, crews must first dig and lay pipes for the hundreds of Kwethluk residents who still haul water and use the honeybucket.