Larsen Bay mayor worries aging water infrastructure could collapse

The spillway in Larsen Bay. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

Larsen Bay, a community of fewer than 100 people on southwest Kodiak Island, is dealing with ongoing water issues.

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Kodiak representative Louise Stutes visited the village recently with the director of the Alaska Office of Management & Budget, Pat Pitney, to take a look.

The spillway of Larsen Bay’s reservoir, which supplies its hydroelectric plant with water, is aging. But during the visit, it became apparent that that’s only one point of weakness in the community’s water system.

The acting mayor of Larsen Bay, Bill Nelson, stands on a wooden structure extended over the community’s reservoir like a dock.

“Yesterday our village consumed 92,000 gallons of water in 24 hours, and our well only produces 36 gallons per minute, so without this reservoir, we would be in big trouble right now,” Nelson said.

“Well, you’d have no water,” Stutes said.

Louise Stutes (left) and Pat Pitney look at map of Kodiak Island while in Larsen Bay city building. (Photo by Kayla Dersoches / KMXT)

Nelson is leading a tour of the water facilities for Stutes along with state budget director Pat Pitney.

Nelson points to what looks like a waterfall on one side of the reservoir.

“As you can see, I take the excavator, and I pile all rocks, and I had sandbags all the way down here, but of course in the spring with the water runoff, they’ve all washed out,” Nelson said.

The sandbags Nelson is talking about are lined up at the mouth of the waterfall, but the water has pulled some of them close to the edge. He says they add them to raise the water level during dry spells in the summer to maintain water flow over the spillway and feed the hydroelectric plant.

The concrete spillway was built along with the reservoir system in the 1980s. The aging spillway is a major point of weakness, Nelson explains because it’s eroding.

Over the past 10 years, Nelson has reached out for help from state agencies, but so far hasn’t had much success finding a permanent fix. Now, he says, the situation is more urgent than ever. He’s afraid the spillway will collapse.

“Our power would go away, drinking water, and the canneries.”

Nelson says 75 percent of the community’s water comes from the reservoir and the other 25 percent comes from the well.

Part of Nelson’s tour includes a stop at the water treatment plant.

Hugh Kennan, who runs the plant, says there’s another infrastructure problem.

“I’m making 93,000 gallons a day and estimating that 40,000 of it never gets into a home,” Kennan said.

Larsen Bay, like many of the island communities, deals with hard-to-find leaks.

“Again, the infrastructure here is dated, and it’s not gonna get better and, in fact, we’ve watched it go from a loss of 10,000 gallons a day to a loss of 40,000 gallons in probably five years,” Kennan said.

And that’s on top of yet another issue.

Nelson says there are five connected beaver dams along the water system which help control the water flow. A section of the dams washed out in 2011 and filled the reservoir with dirt and mud, which they had to clean up. Nelson says the beavers have since rebuilt the dams.

Nelson is afraid it could happen again. But for now, his focus is on repairing or replacing the spillway.

Stutes says a visit like this one is essential to understanding the situation here.

“I can tell them anything, but if you see it, you can relate it to something. You can relate it to people,” Stutes said. “You can relate it to an actual spot and say I saw that.”

Stutes says she hopes she can help connect Larsen Bay with the right people to find a solution.

Pitney says it’s not likely her visit will result in direct state funds.

“We’re still running a deficit, and so the communities are gonna have to handle themselves to a great degree, but there’s many programs that are out there,” Pitney said.

Nelson says he’ll continue applying for funds to fix the problem and keep on reaching out to legislators.

“Hopefully, the more I talk and the more I bark, people will listen because this would be a disaster if this spillway ever let loose,” Nelson said.

Nelson says fixing the problems now would cost less than cleaning up the mess later if the infrastructure collapsed.