No easy answers after fire destroys Tuluksak’s water supply

Peoplpe gather around a burning building in a snowy area
On Jan. 16, 2021 a fire in Tuluksak destroyed the village’s washateria and water plant building, which was their only source of clean, running water. (Kristy Napoka)

On Jan. 16, a fire in Tuluksak destroyed the village’s washateria and water plant building. It was the community’s only source of clean, running water.

This week, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hosted a meeting for local, state, and federal agencies to discuss how to restore water service to the community.

In the short term, the community wants to connect its well to the school. The school is set up for running water, and residents can use it for laundry and hauling water to their homes. But the well pulls up water from the Tuluksak River, which isn’t safe to drink. So that solution raised more questions than answers.

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s John Nichols, who was in Wednesday’s meeting, relayed some of the questions that came up: “Do we provide individual treatment within each home so folks can treat just the water they’re going to drink, or do we provide a small treatment system at the school itself? And we don’t have an answer to that yet.”

Nichols said one of the medium-term plan could be up and running as soon as this summer: A portable water treatment plant YKHC said they have sitting unused in Bethel. But first, agencies will have to determine if the plant will even be able to purify water from the Tuluksak River.

“If you were to, say, look at the waters of the Kenai River versus the Copper River versus the Kuskokwim River, you can tell just by looking that the water quality is very, very different in those three rivers, and takes very, very different processes to clean all the impurities out of the different kinds of water,” explained Nichols.

If the plant from YKHC can’t purify the waters of the Tuluksak River, they’ll explore procuring a portable purification system from the Lower 48. But timing is an issue: The project would have to be completed and delivered before the summer barge season ends.

Funding is also a problem.

The tribe needs to verify whether the building was insured before any agencies can release funds for the medium-term purification systems. Nichols said that if the purification system is already covered by insurance, they don’t want to double-fund it. But the tribe said that it can’t determine if the building was insured because the person who has that information on their computer is out of the office with COVID-19.

Nearly one third of the entire village is has tested positive for COVID-19.

Nichols said the ruined Tuluksak water plant was on its way out. He said typically water plants of this type last about 20 years: This one lasted over four decades, and the tribe had already filed a grant application with the Indian Health Service for some of the funds to cover a new one. That new plant is their long-term Plan A, but it will be three or four years before a new water plant would be installed and usable.

Tuluksak Native Community President Middy Peters said things are tough right now.

“Everybody’s in a kind of a shock mode right now.”

On top of the water crisis and the high COVID-19 case count, Tuluksak is still trying to recover the body of a snowmachiner who went through the ice earlier this month.

In a bit of good news for the village, an organization called Kooteen Creations has raised over $16,000 in relief funds for them. Residents also got their first round of COVID-19 vaccines this week.

This story has been updated to clarify John Nichols’ position within ANTHC.