Nearly three-quarters of rural Alaska homes have plumbing

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Nearly three-quarters of rural households have safe drinking water and flush toilets after an initiative was launched several years ago to modernize sanitation systems in Alaska villages.

When the Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation was formed in 1995, just more than half of households in rural areas had modern plumbing. Now, the number stands at 73 percent, said Dan Easton, director of facility construction and operation for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is responsible for the Village Safe Water Program.

The program so far has brought modern sanitation to 191 villages and 16,458 homes, according to DEC. Nineteen more communities are on the current list to receive water and sewer improvements.

''This is not a luxury,'' said DEC Commissioner Michelle Brown, who received a ceremonial check Wednesday for $19.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the program. ''This is core public health.''

The 2000 Census showed that Alaska continued to lead the nation in the percentage of homes without plumbing facilities.

The Village Safe Water Program receives about $90 million each fiscal year from a variety of state and federal sources. In addition to the USDA money, the federal Environmental Protection Agency provides $35 million a year. The state is required to come up with matching funds amounting to one-third of federal monies. The rest of the money comes mostly from funds specifically used to help Natives.

Easton said nearly 85 percent of rural homes should have safe drinking water and flush toilets by 2003. The goal is to have 100 percent of homes equipped with modern plumbing by 2005.

However, the last 15 percent could prove financially and technically difficult, Easton said. Those communities tend to be small, subsistence villages where a cash economy is virtually nonexistent. Some of the villages are in coastal areas where groundwater tends to be salty.

The villages that remain without modern sanitation are scattered throughout Alaska. They include Wales on the tip of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Strait, Kaktovik in northern Alaska, and Stevens Village and Rampart in the Interior.

Those homes that don't have running water must collect human waste in an outhouse pit or an indoor bucket, also known as a honey bucket. The waste is typically emptied into hoppers located throughout the village. Drinking water is hauled from a central location such as a village washeteria or a river.

In order to qualify for state grants, communities must be able to prove they can maintain the systems, which can cost between $3 million and $8 million for a haul system where water is trucked in and sewage hauled away, or between $8 million and $30 million for a more extensive pipe system.

Brown said villages had more of a problem maintaining their systems before roving troubleshooters were hired a few years ago. Since then, not one village has had a catastrophic failure, she said.

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