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As aging water system is challenged further by brutal weather conditions, Unalakleet formally declares a disaster

Published: Feb. 28, 2021 at 4:28 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -

The City of Unalakleet, which has long been under an on-and-off communitywide boil notice, has officially declared its ongoing water crisis a disaster after yet another emergency meeting of its city council Friday night.

“It’s been really tiring; we’re exhausted at this point,” said Mayor Kira Apaachuaq Eckenweiler. “Because we really do need water now, and I personally think — I hope everybody else thinks this — but we deserve the same water necessity as any other American.”

The declaration, which formally requests state assistance in writing, asks for funding so that the city may “provide safe drinking water to the residents of Unalakleet in bottled or containerized form as soon as possible.”

It also asks for “technical and financial assistance to establish a means to transport large volumes of drinking water from the new wells to the water storage tank for more effective distribution.”

The move comes shortly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy formally issued a state disaster declaration for Tuluksak, about three weeks after the town’s water plant was destroyed in a fire that left its residents without any running water.

In his formally activating that declaration, that village is meant to have access of up to $1 million in disaster relief funding.

However, Unalakleet’s city council also said during Friday’s meeting that it was unsure whether Dunleavy would ever even see the Unalakleet declaration.

According to Jeremy Zidek of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the standard process of local disaster declarations is for the local government to first approve a drafted declaration.

In some cases, that document would then go to the corresponding borough. If the borough approves, the declaration would then go to the state.

Once the state’s emergency operations center receives the documents, a fact sheet featuring the approach for disaster response, recovery costs, advantages and disadvantages is created.

“It tries to paint a real accurate picture of what the disaster is going to cost and take to rebuild,” Zidek said Friday night.

From there, the document would go to the governor’s cabinet — which comprises various commissioners from different state departments — which then considers all documents and determines the next steps.

In some cases, Zidek said, a verbal disaster declaration can be made, in the event of an “overwhelming emergency response cost, and it being readily apparent that there’s going to be substantial amounts of funds that would be extended by the state or local government.”

Unalakleet’s mayor said that the town’s aging water system has slowly turned decrepit, between corrosion, leaks and other issues affecting water quality when it is running.

Harsh weather conditions, specifically including a deep freeze in early February, have caused frozen pipes that further damaged the town’s ability to access water, let alone clean water that residents can actually use and consume.

“One pipe breaks. They try to fix it,” Eckenweiler said. “And another pipe breaks somewhere else. It’s just an ongoing struggle to keep these pipes repaired, and our public works are out there in, like, -40 degree weather.”

In February alone, of 199 homes in Unalakleet, nearly 25% of homes had frozen pipes at some point that the city had to repair, which has also affected water service in general. As of Friday, 40 of those had been fixed, but severe cold and other conditions have only added to the challenge.

The community council members had met several times in the past couple of weeks to discuss action regarding the lack of drinking water in the community, including both long- and short-term solutions.

Several other communities have struggled with water sources, including Nenana, which was also under a boil water notice in February after several pipes burst there. Zidek also noted water crises in communities such as Selawik, Kake and Unalaska, that he said the state is also currently working to address.

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