What’s it like to go from hauling all your water and sewer to one day being able to turn on the faucet and flush a toilet? In Eek, a multi-year project is wrapping up bringing running water to the community for the first time.
“I don’t need to heat water,” Xenia Black said, turning a faucet. “I just turn that on and there it is.” She laughs as clean, running water flows into a bucket. “It’s easier for me to do my chores, like doing more laundry and doing more dishes.”
Black’s chore is cutting fish: fresh caught pike. She dunks the cut slabs in the water and lays them next to dozens of others glistening on the cardboard. Thin red veins streak the translucent meat. Pausing, she lays down her uluq and closes her eyes.
“I can’t do as much as I used to,” Black said with a sigh. “I get tired really easily after I had pneumonia.”
Black is 72 years old and has had running water for about a year, but she got sick before that. Pneumonia is more common in communities without running water. Lots of illnesses are, particularly respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal infections.
“So when I do something I rest a lot,” Black explained.
In Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta, 40 percent of the homes outside of Bethel, or 1,699 residences, do not have running water.
The community of Eek, population 474, is working with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to install their new system using a combination of federal and state money. When running water and sewer is introduced to a community, infection rates drop. In one study of rural Alaskan communities, clinic visits for respiratory infections declined by 16 percent, skin infections by 20 percent and gastrointestinal infections by 38 percent.
“Yeah, we use up a lot of water,” Seth Heakin said, taking off his gloves.
Heakin is helping install the water system, and he’s seen the change firsthand in his five young children.
“They’re not coughing as much, not getting sick as much,” Heakin shared. Before it seemed like one of them always had a cold. “It’s just the everyday hand washing and not reusing the water is the biggest thing for us.”
Water quality is important, but so is water quantity.
Before pipes, Eek residents could get treated water from the community watering point, paying a quarter for every five gallons. Most homes also collected rain water in summer and river ice in winter.
When people don’t have to haul every gallon of water they use to their house, they use more of it. Instead of everyone reusing the same basin of water to wash their hands, they can turn on a faucet. They can clean the house and wash dishes more often. They can also take showers and do laundry at home instead of going to the community washeteria.
“Now that you have access to water, you can do whatever you like,” explained Stella Alexie, Eek Tribal Administrator and city council member, “mop, wash dishes right after you eat dinner.”
Before plumbing, she couldn’t keep the house as clean. Because she was the first in her family to get running water, her sons, mother, and grand-kids would come over to bathe and do laundry in the months before their homes were retrofitted.
“We were running our washer a lot more this winter, sometimes from morning to evening,” Alexie remembered.
Rural Alaskan homes without running water tend to use about 1.5 gallons of water per person per day. The World Health Organization classifies this amount as a “very high” health concern. Meanwhile, the average American with running water uses 156 gallons of water per day. The largest use of American household water is flushing toilets.
George Alexie is Eek’s Tribal Council President. He lives in the same house he grew up in, but now plumbing has changed the layout.
“Right over there, where you see that couch, that used to be where the bathroom and the toilet used to be,” Alexie said, pointing to a corner near the front door.
The bathroom consisted of a basin and a toilet. The toilet was a honey bucket: a five-gallon bucket with a seat and a trash bag. Having it near the door made taking it outside to dump easier. Now he has a bathroom in another part of the house. It’s complete with a sink, shower, bath, and flushing toilet. He no longer has to handle the waste and the house smells better.
“So it’s a better, cleaner environment,” Alexie said, smiling.
When asked if he could go back to the old system, Alexie replied, “No, I wouldn’t want to go back to taking out a lot of waste.”
Growing up, Alexie’s Elders told him to conserve water and never to play with it. Now, he’s told to use as much water as he wants. He’s having no trouble getting used to that.