Tuluksak gets access to running water 45 days after fire destroyed its only clean water source

People gather in a snowy field as a smoke rises from a building
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)

After 45 days without potable running water, people in the village of Tuluksak are finally able to drink from a local source again.

fire destroyed the community’s water purification plant and washateria in mid-January. Since then, residents had been living on donations of bottled water.

On March 2, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation was finally able to restore continuous access to drinking water in Tuluksak with a reverse osmosis water filtration system. YKHC had established a pump that would pull water from the Tuluksak River to the school, where villagers could do laundry, several weeks ago. The new filtration system now makes it possible to drink the water, too.

“It goes through a series of filters to filter out any kind of contamination, and then it goes through an RO treatment, which further treats it. And then the water from the RO is going to be chlorinated so that it is disinfected, and it can be used for all purposes, including drinking water,” said Cindy Christian, project manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Drinking Water Program.

With the RO system in place, the state DEC’s “boil water” order has been lifted, meaning residents no longer have to rely on the river or donated water to survive. Before the pump, if residents didn’t have bottled water they had to collect and haul water or ice from the nearby Tuluksak River or the farther away Kuskokwim to be boiled. In the past, residents have complained about the water quality of the Tuluksak River, calling it unsafe to drink, even when boiled.

Villagers have only a few hours each day when they can fill their bottles with drinking water. The village also has some remaining water from prior donations that came from sources like a GoFundMe and a member of Black Eyed Peas. The reverse osmosis system is intended to be a holdover until YKHC can install a longer-term system.

The next piece of the puzzle is a temporary water purification plant. The plant will restore potable water to all watering points in Tuluksak, instead of just one fill station at the school.

“Reverse osmosis units are pretty energy intensive systems and their filters are very expensive to replace. And so by bringing this water treatment plant up to Tuluksak, we then can provide potable water to that entire system,” said YKHC Director of Environmental Health and Engineering Brian Lefferts.

That entire system refers to the school, teacher housing, and a temporary washateria: Tuluksak never had running water to individual homes to begin with.

Once YKHC fully decommissions and winterizes the plant, Bethel-based company Faulkner and Walsh will send it upriver and install it. Co-owner Steve Walsh said it will take a while to prepare, and weeks to install once it’s there.

“There’s a lot of work to do. And there’s not a lot of infrastructure there,” Walsh said.

They’ll have to first widen the ice road to move the structure, and they anticipate the work continuing beyond breakup.

“Once you hit the latter part of March, of course, the sun comes out and solar radiation affects the ice road quite a bit. And so yes, we’ve got to get everything up there. We anticipate that we’ll have some equipment that we’ll have to de-mob by barge,” Walsh said.

Tuluksak will have to wait several years before a permanent structure can be put in place, but funding for it has already been secured. Last month, the Indian Health Service announced that they will fund the lion’s share of the $6.7 million replacement facility.

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