On Jan. 16, a fire in Tuluksak destroyed the village’s washeteria and water plant building, which was their only source of clean, running water. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hosted a meeting for a number of local, state, and federal agencies to address the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one of several complicating factors.
During the meeting, the agencies addressed short, medium, and long term plans. For the short term, the community wants to connect its well to the school. The school is set up for running water, and residents can use it for laundry and hauling water to their homes. But the well pulls up water from the Tuluksak River, which isn’t safe to drink. The short term solution seems to raise more questions than answers.
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s John Nichols, who was in Wednesday's meeting, relayed some of the questions that came up: “Do we provide individual treatment within each home so folks can treat just the water they're going to drink, or do we provide a small treatment system at the school itself? And we don't have an answer to that yet.”
Nichols said one of the medium term plans could be up and running as soon as this summer. In the meeting, YKHC said that they have a portable water treatment plant sitting unused in Bethel that they’re willing to lend. But first, the agencies will have to determine if it will be able to purify the water from the Tuluksak River.
“If you were to, say, look at the waters of the Kenai River versus the Copper River versus the Kuskokwim River, you can tell just by looking that the water quality is very, very different in those three rivers, and takes very, very different processes to clean all the impurities out of the different kinds of water,” explained Nichols.
If the plant from YKHC can’t purify the waters of the Tuluksak River they’ll explore procuring a portable purification system from the lower 48, but timing is an issue. The project would have to be completed and delivered before the summer barge season ends.
Funds are also a problem. The tribe needs to verify if the building was insured before any agencies can release funds for the medium term purification systems. Nichols said that if the purification system is already covered by insurance they don’t want to double-fund it, but the tribe said that it can’t determine if the building was insured because the person who has that information on their computer is out of the office with COVID-19. As a matter of fact, nearly one third of the entire village is has tested positive for COVID-19.
Nichols said that the ruined Tuluksak water plant was on its way out anyway. He said typically water plants of this type last about 20 years. This one lasted over four decades, so the tribe had actually already filed a grant application with Indian Health Services for some of the funds to cover a new one. This is their long term Plan A, but it will be three or four years until the new water plant is installed and usable.
Tuluksak Native Community President Middy Peters said that things are tough for them. “Everybody's in a kind of a shock mode right now,” said Peters.
On top of this water crisis and the high COVID-19 case count, Tuluksak is still trying to recover the body of a snowmachiner who went through the ice earlier this month.
But in a bit of good news for the village, organization Kooteen Creations has raised over $16,000 in relief funds for them. Residents also got their first round of COVID-19 vaccines this week.