Rural Sanitation Series: Innovating Beyond the Honey Bucket

What if you didn’t have piped water and sewer, and the government wasn’t picking up the tab to get you some. How would you find a low-cost system that you could keep running through the winter? In the fourth segment of “Kick the Bucket,” find out how experts are looking for answers to rural sanitation issues in Alaska.

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Villagers and people in the water and sewer business can name dozens of ways systems have failed due to parts that shattered in the cold, say, or components that had to be flown in from Europe and installed by a Lower 48 specialist.

Keeping it simple is not necessarily the solution when haul systems, where people pay by the gallon to get water delivered and waste picked up, leave them using as little water as possible, far below the 15 gallons a day needed for frequent hand washing. Brian Lefferts is environmental health and engineering director at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation:

“We recognize  that there are some places that the geology, the area won’t allow for piped water and sewer to the home, but that the small haul system the way it is just currently isn’t working, so there’s a push to do research and development in that area to try to find a solution for those homes,” Lefferts says.

Some of the push is coming from the state, which is putting up money for innovative solutions through the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge. Bill Griffith is the Alaska Village Safe Water facilities manager:

“We’ve established some performance targets that include things like sufficient water for health, affordable operation, feasible capital costs, constructability, long-term operability,” Griffith says. “We’ve also got some evaluation criteria like the requirement to go out and get user input from communities, and also we’re looking for some innovative approaches to design.”

The state has funded six teams to develop detailed proposals. Speaking from his office in Tok, Summit Consulting’s founder David Cramer says recycled water will be part of theirs:

“Water that comes from your washing machine, from your shower, that water can be recycled. It can be used to flush a toilet. It can used to do laundry again, and so on.”

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is seeking funding through crowd-sourcing to work on its proposed solution. Lefferts says recycled water is in their plans too:

“We’re hoping that by reducing the number of hauls that are necessary by retreating the water within the home, we’ll be able to make it  affordable to the point where people won’t conserve water.”

Another popular idea is mini-water and sewage treatment plants installed at each home.

Standalone systems for several homes in Kivalina are the goal of an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium project begun a few years ago. Project manager John Warren says this summer they’ll install equipment that funnels filtered rain water into a tank in the house, and plumbing fixtures that conserve water. Because flooding is forcing villagers to relocate, Warren says the system is portable, giving the water treatment system as an example:

“It has filters. You can put some chlorine in the water and it’s in full compliance with the EPA requirements, and it’s safe. The treatment system that we’re providing is also mobile. They can actually take it with them to fish camp. It has an electric pump for ease of use, or it has a hand pump if there is no electricity,” Warren says.

As for sewage, ANTHC plans call for the separation of liquids and solids, and treatment of the solids to reduce the number of trips needed for disposal.
While the competitors have been asked to keep details confidential, Summit Consulting’s Cramer says reliability will come from sticking with the tried and true:

“I don’t think anybody expects to use space-age technology. What will go into these things will be products that are already on the shelf someplace and the idea here is to combine them integrate them in a way that’s unique.”

Lefferts says he’s optimistic the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge will result in new options but he hopes those don’t become the only choice for all rural communities:

“There are still a number of homes that are unserved that could easily be served with traditional pipes and gravity sewer mains. And we know that system works and can be cost effective. And we strongly encourage that we continue to fund construction projects to serve those homes using traditional water and sewer construction methods.”

A few Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge teams will be funded to further develop their projects into 2018. But innovative alternatives are just one part of what’s lying ahead. Next time, in Kick the Bucket, we’ll find out more about what the future holds.