After a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s water plant in January 2021, Tuluksak residents have developed several different drinking water options; each comes with its own pros and cons. Residents’ choice depends on what they trust, and what they have the means to access.
If you live in Tuluksak, you can pack water from a hole in the frozen Kuskokwim River, which is about 2 miles from town. You’ll need a vehicle, and if that’s a snowmachine or four-wheeler you’ll need a sled. Residents need to be careful of wolves, which have been spotted near the village lately. People should plan for about a 45-minute round trip, and will want to bring want an ice pick. But Henry Peter’s ice pick had gone missing, so he had to gamble on an open hole.
“I'm quite fortunate. Somebody was there before me,” said Henry.
His gamble paid off.
“And that was what I was hoping for,” Henry said.
It’s a busy night on the river, and Henry's there packing water after his shift at the store.
“At least twice a week of hauling water back and forth,” said Henry.
He always packs enough for his household of five, and usually extra for another family. Tonight he’s hauling 40 to 50 gallons of water. Peter goes the extra distance to the Kuskokwim River, rather than the Tuluksak River, which is closer to town. He doesn’t trust water from the Tuluksak River.
“I personally did get sick from drinking it before,” said Henry.
Elders Peter and Elena Gregory don’t trust the Tuluksak River water either.
“We won't drink that water,” said Peter Gregory.
“Because of the mines up there that made it, like, really coffee with milk,” added Elena.
Elena is talking about the Nyac mine, a former gold mine that sits at the source of a main Tuluksak tributary. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has said that the river water is safe to drink when boiled, but most Tuluksak residents say that it makes them sick. Even so, residents without vehicles had to get water from the nearby Tuluksak River after the water plant burned down. The Kuskokwim River was too far to pack water without one.
During spring breakup, the Gregorys might also have to resort to packing Tuluksak River water as ice floes will likely make the Kuskokwim too dangerous to access. In the summer, they’ll drink rainwater. The couple prefers natural water sources. They don’t trust water treated with chemicals, like the water from the Tuluksak school, where the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation installed a temporary water plant in early March.
Tuluksak resident Jera Peter doesn’t mind the school water.
"Granted, it smells like chlorine, but it's better than drinking out of the river,” said Jera.
Jera helped to install the temporary water plant. He said that he was lucky to get the work after he lost his job when the washeteria burned down. The temporary plant pipes up water from the Tuluksak River, and some residents are skeptical of it.
“It's good enough to drink even if I have to boil it," Jera added.
Most people who get water from the school boil it before drinking it. They say that the water coming from the plant is brown, and that once it settles, there’s a layer of sediment on the bottom. The temporary water plant is housed in the shop area of the school, and is only open for about six hours each day. That means that people who work late, like Henry Peter, aren’t able to access it most days.
YKHC Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Engineering Brian Lefferts said that the water isn’t supposed to be brown, and said that the color was likely because the operators weren’t changing the filters often enough. Lefferts talked to the operators in mid-April about the issue.
“Since they've changed those, it's making good, clear water again,” Lefferts said.
Lefferts also added that sediment in the river usually increases during the spring, and filters may have to be changed more often.
When breakup comes, they’ll have to pull the system out of the river, wait for the ice to clear, and then reinstall it on a floating dock. Lefferts said that is an annual process for these systems.
“And that's pretty typical for anybody that uses an intake system out in the river,” said Lefferts.
The community will have to prepare by filling their water storage tanks. They have a few thousand gallons of water storage available to them, which could carry them through a couple weeks.
There’s another option for getting water in Tuluksak: residents can pick up donated bottled water from the Tuluksak Native Community office, when it’s open. But the supply is dwindling. The tribe has requested bottled water from the State of Alaska to carry them through breakup. Bottled water is also available at the store for around $60 per case.
Tuluksak was hoping to have its more consistent water source by now, a portable water plant from YKHC. It would provide more water in a more central location, but the plant is still sitting in Bethel since it was too heavy for the ice road this winter. For a brief period, the National Guard thought that they might be able to deliver it using a similar helicopter to the one that removed the "Into the Wild" bus, but it proved too heavy even for that. The new plant is expected to be barged up in June; installation would likely finish in late summer.