Kake scrambles for water after dam breaks

Posted: Thursday, August 03, 2000

KAKE (AP) -- A few hundred yards from the hole time and nature tore through this small community's dam, thousands of salmon thrash in the shallows near a hatchery that cannot hold all their valuable eggs for lack of a reliable water supply.

At the dam itself, weary workmen keep constant watch over a makeshift arrangement of hoses, pumps and plywood that keeps water flowing into the town's homes and businesses.

Surrounded by rainforest and the salty waters of the Inside Passage, Kake scrambles for fresh water.

The trouble started more than a week ago when rain-swollen Gunnuk Creek carried an uprooted tree into the aging wooden dam with such force that it punched a grapefruit sized hole through its face.

''Those trees were rooted up by nature itself and sent down on us,'' Mayor Lonnie Anderson said, gesturing toward massive logs embedded in the mud below the wrecked dam.

Then the relentless flow of water tore at the edges of the breach until it was big enough to drain the reservoir behind the dam.

''When it went, it was just like crashing thunder going over,'' said John Anderson, one of the operators of the town's water treatment plant. ''The river below just filled up. There was about a two-foot foot surge of foam and it just shot down the valley.''

Taps went dry all over town. The fish processing plant shut down. And the hatchery -- the town's economic lifeblood -- was left dangerously dry in the midst of its annual harvest of roe and milt from chum salmon.

By early this week, a jury-rigged system had water flowing to houses and the fish processing plant. The hatchery was limping along on a single pump that pulls water directly out of the creek.

''There's nothing like taking a shower after five days of working 24 hours a day,'' Anderson said.

Now the community is looking for both short and long-term solutions -- and money to pay for them. Gov. Tony Knowles, who toured Kake's dam and hatchery Wednesday, has authorized as much as $500,000 in state disaster funds, but that won't be nearly enough in the long run.

''We need a stable water supply,'' said Steve Andison, general manager of the Gunnuk Creek Hatchery, which requires 900 gallons of water a minute to keep millions of infant salmon alive until they're big enough to release next spring.

After loggers cleared much of the land around Kake, the town's economy has come to focus on the hatchery, Anderson said. Begun as a high school project to restore a salmon run that dwindled to just a dozen fish, the hatchery now employs more than a dozen people and produced a run of more than 500,000 fish last year.

Because of the dam breach, the hatchery will fall far short of its goal of 75 million eggs. The nonprofit organization stands to lose $3 million dollars, Andison said, and local fishermen are in for a lean year a few years from now.

Right now, the eggs floating in vast metal trays are doing fine. But within a few weeks, they'll need a constant flow of oxygen-rich water to stay alive, Andison said.

That leaves Kake with a three-stage problem. Stabilize the patchwork system now pumping water into city pipes, find a temporary way to channel enough water to the hatchery, and replace the dam.

Randy Muth, a project manager with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, is concerned mostly with maintaining a safe supply of water for the town of about 700. For years, the dam has helped spare Kake the public health problems that plague Alaska villages without running water or sewers.

Muth wants to spend $250,000 to replace the flexible hoses and emergency pumps that now draw water into a plywood box built into an area that was once completely submerged by water from the dam. From the box, the water is pumped into a chlorination plant to make it safe for drinking.

Hard pipes and pumps better suited to the job will take the pressure off workers who now man the temporary system 24 hours a day, stopping pumps to flush out debris every 20 minutes or so, Muth said.

Meanwhile, Andison wants to build a temporary dam -- a wire cage filled with rocks -- upstream from the existing dam to bring a steady flow of untreated river water into the hatchery. He estimates that would cost another $400,000.

To help the hatchery, such a dam would have to be completed by the end of September, Andison said. That's a tall order for a small town in the midst of the busy fishing season.

Then there's the topic of a permanent solution. A $3.1 million project to pipe water from nearby Alpine Lake to Kake is already under construction, but it won't be finished for at least 6 months. And the pipeline was intended to supplement the dam, not replace it.

In the long term, Kake's leaders hope to replace the dam originally built by the federal government in the 1950s. The price tag on that project: about $5 million.

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