The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation installed a specialty water filtration system in the Tuluksak school on March 2. YKHC said that the system could provide enough drinking water for the entire community — but soon the system was being used only by the school.
After a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s source of drinking water on Jan. 16, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation got to work. It sent a team to the community to build new water systems.
The team got a water system with basic filtration up and running by mid-February. It was intended to provide water for things like cleaning and laundry. A couple of weeks after that, the workers set up a reverse osmosis system with extra filtration to provide cleaner water intended for drinking. But up until mid-April, most people in Tuluksak couldn’t drink the water from this second system.
That’s because the reverse osmosis system is located in the school kitchen, whee only staff are allowed in. Tuluksak principal Douglas Bushey said it’s a health hazard to let community members go in and out, and he wanted to avoid distractions.
“We didn’t want people just showing up during the school day and, you know, interrupting the learning environment,” Bushey said.
The Tuluksak tribe said it didn’t have workers to staff the reverse osmosis system after school hours, so the community kept drinking water from the less filtered system. Community members could also get donated bottled water from the tribal office, although the supply is starting to dwindle.
So the reverse osmosis water system ended up just being used for the school, including school lunches which are also occasionally provided to the community’s 40 elders. Teachers who live in teacher housing could access it 24/7 — teachers who mostly come from outside the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
In a more than 90% Alaska Native community, the cleanest water in the community was accessible most consistently to non-Natives.
Tuluksak Elder Elena Gregory, who is Alaska Native, didn’t know about the specialized reverse osmosis system. She didn’t know there was one system reserved for community members and another, more filtered, system for school use. She found out in early April, more than a month after it had been installed.
“You’re trying to poison the community while you guys drink that good water,” Gregory said to Bushey. “That’s how we feel. We’re treated like Natives who can drink anything.”
Principal Bushey responded he needed to keep the cleaner water available for school lunches and teacher use so the school could stay open. Once the approximately 200-gallon reverse osmosis holding tank is depleted, it takes four to six hours to refill.
The school district has been flying in bottled water for the teachers since a week after the fire. Since late February, about a month after the fire, teachers have also had access to running water for showers and toilets in the school about.
The tribe was okay with the arrangement.
“Actually, it’s a good thing because we don’t have to worry about school closing down,” said council member Kristy Napoka.
Napoka was concerned that if the school didn’t have enough reverse osmosis water, too many teachers would leave and it would have to shut down, even after YKHC said the system makes enough water for the entire community.
The school was also concerned that teachers would leave after losing their running water when the water plant burned down. Most stayed, except for four teachers the district evacuated. All but one have returned; the last teacher is planning on transferring to the Akiachak school.
For a while, teachers used honey buckets. Elder Elena Gregory said that after that, the non-Native teachers better understood the rest of the community.
“I was so very happy that teachers got to experience that,” Gregory said.
Before the fire, teacher houses were the only homes in the village on running water.
YKHC said that the whole reason the specialized system is in the school is because it’s equipped with the proper drainage, but that it could be reinstalled elsewhere if needed.
YKHC also said that the system is extremely energy-intensive, pulling electricity from the school’s generator. Since the school only refuels their generator once a year, acting superintendent John Stackhouse doesn’t know how much fuel use has increased since the system was installed.
“No one said that it was an energy-intensive system,” Stackhouse said. “No one expressed that to me.”
The state declined to respond to KYUK’s question asking if state disaster declaration funds could cover the cost of that energy. It also said that if the school would like to request emergency reimbursement, it could do so through the Public Assistance Fund.
YKHC learned during an interview with KYUK in mid-April the reverse osmosis system was not open for public use. YKHC called the school and the tribe the next day. The school then opened the reverse osmosis system to community members. Now, each day, residents can come to the school for two hours in the evening, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., to get up to 5 gallons of reverse osmosis water. Principal Bushey has volunteered to staff the system.
“Because I’m usually here anyway,” Bushey said.
Bushey added that he didn’t know the community was meant to have access to the system until the call with YKHC.
“It was never shared with me until later on,” he said.
But in just a couple of weeks, on May 12, the school will close. Bushey will be retiring from his job and leaving Tuluksak shortly after.
The tribe said that it is not sure yet what it will do to continue making the water available.
The community is waiting on another water plant to be barged upriver, which will operate until a permanent plant can be installed several years from now. It will have a more centralized access point and hold up to 8,000 gallons of water. The system will be up and running by late July at the earliest.