three people inside water plant

Communities in Western Alaska will receive a portion of three and a half billion dollars from the federal government to improve water and sanitation infrastructure. The funding appropriated to the Indian Health Services or IHS is part of the Infrastructure Bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last November.

The law allocates 700 million dollars per year over a span of five years to various tribes both in Alaska and the Lower 48. The point of the funding “is rebuilding roads, expanding access to clean water, promoting environmental justice and investing in communities that have been left behind for too long,” according U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

In Western Alaska, the money will meet the needs of unserviced communities trying to build wastewater and sanitation systems.  The week of May 30, representatives from IHS travelled to Alaska to see what kind of projects the allocation will be funding and what kinds of projects should be funded in the future. They visited communities such as St. Michael, Stebbins and Shaktoolik, along with other Alaska communities.

people in front of an airplane
To better understand water and sewer needs in rural Alaska, a group of NSHC employees and board members accompanied several Indian Health Services representatives on a trip to visit three regional villages on June 1. Photo courtesy of Norton Sound Health Corporation, shared with permission (2022).

Senior Advisor to IHS Director, Elizabeth Carr described what they observed during the visit.

We toured with a board of directors of the Norton Sound Health Corporation and were able to meet with the water operators in each of the communities. We saw their wastewater systems and their water treatment plants, much of which have been around for decades. While they’re still within their current lifetime expectancy, we know that with the weather and the harsh conditions of the winter months up here in Alaska, that maybe those lifetime expectancies might not be so accurate after all,” Carr said.

Federal funding could help improve the community’s 36-year-old water tank, according to Norbert Otten, a water operator in St. Michael.

“And this past winter our raw water tank, being as old as it is, has a leak on the bottom of the tank. So, we are in the process of cleaning it and getting that fixed. And we were able to show them our need for the village,” Otten said.

people around a tank
St. Michael’s 1.2 million gallon water holding tank was built using bolted steel panels and insulated with exterior spray foam. (this tank is 36 years old) Photo courtesy of Norton Sound Health Corporation, shared with permission (2022).

Carr described a similar water storage tank, this time in Shaktoolik, that they were able to visit while it was in the process of being cleaned.

“They have a water storage tank that they fill, and it is, I think, 36 years old and is starting to really show its age.  And while they were cleaning it, they found a number of leaks. And so I think, looking at that and determine where the leaks spring from and what the foundation of the water tank looks like, we were able to see exactly why they have proposed to get a new water tank, and that’s exactly what the new funding will allow for,” Carr said.

Retired CEO of Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, or NSEDC, and lifelong Shaktoolik resident, Eugene Asicksik saw the visit as a more general opportunity for IHS to listen to Shaktoolik’s concerns, learn about their unique problems and actually get in touch with the people they serve.

“I think, just coming to the village was a big thing but then listening to the village. Anything comes and if the village is involved, and if it comes from within the village and if there is blood sweat and tears coming out of the village, then it’s most likely going to work. But it’s not going to work if they’re sitting in Washington or Juneau or Anchorage and then trying to impose it into a community. There should be some village input,” Asickisik said.

The projects can be divided into tier one, two and three prioritizations. Tier one projects are ready to receive the most funding because their planning stages are complete, according to the IHS’s statement. In the Norton Sound region, those include the Shishmaref reservoir RWTL and WST improvements project, the Mountain Village solid waste upgrade and the Alakanuk surface water intake project. 

Tier two projects, such as the Shishmaref flush and haul service for unserved homes have worked out a recommended solution and are eligible for funding, while tier three projects, such as Savoonga’s back up well project, are still in the planning stages. Tier two and three projects will receive smaller funds than tier one projects to facilitate their planning processes.

The primary goal of the IHS is to get the projects up and running as soon as possible, Carr said. But there is much work to be done still. On average, it takes three to five years for a project to be completed.

There is a lot of documentation to sort through as well as proposals for contracting workers.

Village residents can expect to see some work done, as well as an influx of new faces to work on the projects, but the speed of the work will vary from project to project. Carr pointed to the need that will spur the projects on to completion.

“The need for safe drinking water, safe clean water is imperative. And knowing that these communities oftentimes struggle with getting access to water is just one of those experiences that you’ll never forget and one of those experiences that we’ll take back to Washington DC and make sure that folks at HHS are well aware. And we’ll continue to advocate for additional resources to come up to Alaska,” Carr said.

For more information on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and how the IHS plans to allocate the law’s 700 million dollars for this fiscal year, you can go online to the IHS website.

Image at top: From left to right — Sean Lee NSHC’s Sanitation Engineer discusses plans for improvement with Shaktoolik Backup Water Plant Operator Trevor Savetilik, and Capt. Hugh Denny the IHS Alaska Area Acting Director of Office of Environmental Health & Engineering. Photo courtesy of Norton Sound Health Corporation, shared with permission (2022).