3 weeks later, Tuluksak is without running water or disaster relief

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

It’s been three weeks since a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of drinking water. Since then, the village has been living on donations of bottled water from activists, a gold mining company, and even an Indigenous rapper from the pop-rap group the Black Eyed Peas.

Noticeably absent have been a response or supplies from state government.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has yet to declare a state-level disaster to address Tuluksak’s water crisis. In doing so, he holds back up to $1 million in disaster relief funding for the village. 

State legislators who represent Tuluksak say they’re working on the issue.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman said he’s looking at options to pay for the long-term response to the crisis. Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said that the state House can’t do much right now since they’re currently unorganized. She said the governor should declare a state disaster.

“The circumstances in the village of Tuluksak, and its water crisis, is most influenced by the administration, and the executive branch’s ability to move the disaster request forward within its own process,” Zulkosky said.

Zulkosky told KYUK she’s contacted Dunleavy’s office multiple times in recent weeks, asking him to declare a disaster and send in the National Guard. 

When asked if the governor’s office had replied, Zulkosky said: “I have not heard a response from the governor’s office on my inquiries related to National Guard support, whether they’ve pursued unspent CARES [Act] funding that have been provided to the state, or anything related to that issue and Tuluksak.”

KYUK also contacted the governor’s office, which put the station in touch with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said the division can provide relief to Tuluksak without a disaster declaration, but it has not sent supplies.

“In order to respond to emergencies in Alaska, we don’t need a disaster declaration,” he said. “We don’t need the disaster declaration to provide water to folks.”

Alaskans and activists across the state say they’re wondering what’s stopping the state government from sending drinking water if it’s already in its capacity to do so.

“Well, the requests that we had from Tuluksak were that they didn’t have access to potable water,” Zidek said. “So our primary concern was restoring that access.”

To restore access, the division coordinated with private citizens and agencies to make sure bottled water could be flown or driven in. But they didn’t send any water.

Zidek said part of the division’s job is to ensure that if a community can’t respond to an emergency, someone else does, such as nonprofits or private companies — not necessarily the state itself.

He said a disaster declaration from the governor’s office would create a long-term approach to recovery. A long-term state response isn’t necessary, he said, since the tribe already filed a request for a permanent water plant and washateria with the federal Indian Health Service. 

Instances when money from the Disaster Relief Fund have been used over the last 10 years, including for fires. (Legislative Finance Division)

“A new water plant could take three to four years,” Ziden said. “Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation plans to install a portable treatment plant as a stop-gap, but that will take weeks or months to get in place.”

Zidek did say his division is writing a report on the water crisis to send to the governor’s Disaster Policy Cabinet. The cabinet could recommend that the governor declare a disaster. If so, the governor could release up to $1 million for relief without legislative approval.

Zidek didn’t say when, or if, that would happen.

Rep. Zulkosky said Alaskans who live in Tuluksak deserve just as much access to state emergency resources as Alaskans in other communities.

“If any larger community in Alaska was without reliable access to water during a global public health crisis, it is almost certain a disaster would be declared,” she said by email.

Legislative Finance Division’s records show 20 disasters have been declared since 2011, including for fires.