Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bethel Heights is getting a $14M water upgrade. Here’s where that money will go

bethel heights - housing water pies
Will McCarthy

Bethel Heights, the neighborhood known around town as "Housing," is notorious for its water problems. Over the years, residents have complained of brown water coming out of their taps, a noxious taste, and sometimes no running water at all. There have even been multiple instances in which the city has been forced to cut open frozen sewage pipes and thaw the line with pressurized water, pouring raw sewage out onto the tundra.

One longtime resident of Housing said that after 10 years of living in the neighborhood, she’s just about seen it all.

“Oh yeah, washing clothes: your light clothes are going to turn yellow or, like, a different color. And you can't drink the water,” she said. “I mean, I guess you can, but it just tastes so horrible.”

John Sargent, the city of Bethel’s grant manager, said that the city is aware of the issues and is taking steps to fix them.

“We've had a lot of complaints over the years,” Sargent said.

Now there’s money to address at least some of those complaints. Just last week, the city received a $14 million grant from the state of Alaska’s Village Safe Water program to address water and sewage issues in Housing.

“We can't fix the entire project, but we’re doing the best we can,” Sargent said. “We're going to replace and repair a bunch of pipes, sewer and water, and hook up some new houses.”

The project that the grant is funding has four main parts. First, replacing some of the old pipes made from 40-year-old galvanized steel with new plastic lines that won’t rust. That should fix the brown water issue by reducing the sediment and rust buildup. Second, the project will cut the distance one of the water lines needs to travel by 50%. This should mean better water pressure for residents, as well as for fire hydrants. Third, adjusting sewage lines so that the sewage flows downhill to prevent blockages. And fourth, adding 25 homes to city water in the neighborhood just west of the St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church.

The grant will fund the first two-thirds of an estimated $23 million project. The improvements are expected to take place over the next two years, and the city believes it will receive the additional funding required to complete the project.

Still, Sargent acknowledged that the project wouldn’t solve every complaint when it comes to Housing’s water. Not every pipe will be replaced, and it’s possible that residents may still see brown water coming out of their taps after the project is completed. The city said that the water meets all state standards, and that it’s partially up to homeowners to keep their pipes clean.

“It's not brown water all the time. It's drinkable and it comes out clear,” Sargent said. “There is a personal responsibility to change your filter. There is some decay in the pipes, but they’re working, they’re functional, the water is potable.”

But at least one longtime Bethel Heights resident wasn’t so sure that filters were the issue, and said that any improvements remain to be seen.

“I have a filter that runs out into my kitchen. And even with the filter it's, you know, you have to change it, like, almost every week because the water is so disgusting,” she said.

The city expects to begin work on easements, right-of-ways, and designs in the next few weeks.

Will McCarthy is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.