In Angoon, a rural water system gets help from beavers

Auk’Tah Lake became Angoon’s water source in the early 1990s. Before that, the village relied on a muskeg for its drinking water. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The village of Angoon’s drinking water comes from a lake held up by a beaver dam. That might sound sketchy, but the beavers are one of reasons the city has public water. Not all Alaska towns do.

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For about the past seven years, the federal dollars for Alaska’s water and sewer projects has remained flat. That’s a big problem in rural parts of the state, where the existing infrastructure is getting old, and the cost to replace or upgrade those systems is growing.

Paul Thomas works at Angoon’s water treatment facility: a small rectangular building at the end of a dirt road. Metal pipes snake along the walls.

“This here’s where the water comes up from the lake, and it goes up this way to the green pipe,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ favorite part of his job is removing the crud from the filters.

“Getting these cleaned out so I’m not getting my town sick,” Thomas said.

Before he got this job a few years ago, Thomas said he didn’t pay much attention to where Angoon’s water came from. He used to keep one of those water filtration pitchers in his fridge just in case. But not anymore.

“A lot of people I see go to the store, they’re buying water bottles still,” Thomas said. “I just tell ’em I drink it right out of the faucet. It’s good. I make the best water in town.”

But the best water in town comes at a price. A price that Albert Kookesh III, who works for the city, said is growing.

A short walk from the treatment facility is Auk’Tah Lake, Angoon’s water source. It’s a deep green color and flanked by trees. The thing that’s not visible is the natural dam holding it all in — a beaver dam.

Albert Kookesh III (left) and Paul Thomas (right) on the edge of Auk’Tah Lake. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Kookesh said the “million dollar question” is what happens if the dam breaks.

“You know the water level would drop drastically. I don’t know if it would all go,” Kookesh said. “But I know that it would drop.”

Kookesh said there are some upgrades that could make Angoon’s water system more reliable and affordable, like building actual levies — not just the ones created by tiny paws. There’s also interest in getting solar panels for the treatment facility. Right now, the water is pumped up to it using electricity, which can be expensive since the city runs on diesel.

To pay for water treatment, Angoon uses a combination of city taxes and a yearly appropriation from the legislature. But it’s still difficult for the city to break even. Part of the reason Kookesh says is unemployment in Angoon is high, and there’s a number of people who can’t afford to pay their monthly water bill.

“We at the city know that because we’re in the same boat as them.” Kookesh said.

The piping system that brings the water into town wasn’t constructed with shut off valves. So when someone doesn’t pay their bill, the city can’t shut their water off. Instead, it winds up paying for the cost.

Kookesh said he’s not sure how much longer that can continue. If nothing changes in two or three years, Angoon might have to limit around-the-clock running water for everyone.

“It’s not something we want to do in Angoon. But it’s something we might have to do,” Kookesh said. “It’s not something fun to think about, especially for someone who grew up with water and flushing toilets. We want to make sure that the option’s always there.”

Bill Griffith, the facilities manager at the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said there’s a lot of need all around state. He oversees the Village Safe Water Program.

About 190 small communities can’t afford to fix their systems without some kind of help.

Griffith said his agency has identified $1.7 billion dollars of water and sewer projects in Alaska that need to be addressed. But every year, they only get about $60 million dollars in state and federal funding — a drop in the bucket.

“It’s really just kind of a Band-Aid at this point,” Griffith said.

Griffith said a lot of the infrastructure in rural Alaska was built back in the 1970s and ’80s, constructed with federal grants and a state match. But since 2009, the congressional allocation for those projects has remained flat.

President Donald Trump’s budget for next fiscal year proposes zeroing out some the grant funding for repairing Alaska’s outdated systems.

Griffith said there’s always the option the state legislature could put more money in — on top of the federal match.

“I don’t think that’s very likely. Given the current, budget situation in Alaska,” Griffith said. “I don’t think it’s likely they’re going to make funds available in excess.”

For now, Griffith said Angoon’s best bet is to try to upkeep its existing water system. Unfortunately, it’s not on the top of the list to receive additional funds. Unlike some other places in Alaska, Angoon actually has running water. That’s not the case for about 30 Alaska communities.

Albert Kookesh III said at least in the meantime nature is providing.

“You know the beavers are still there doing their thing,” Kookesh said. “But it’s something the beavers have created and we’re definitely taking advantage of.”

Kookesh said he isn’t sure for how much longer. He joked that beaver hunters aren’t welcome in Angoon.