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Meghan Sullivan
Special to Indian Country Today

Tuluksak, a Yup’ik village in Western Alaska, is searching for solutions after a Jan. 16 fire destroyed the community’s only source of clean, running water.

The fire burned from noon to around 4:30 local time, according to Alaska State Troopers, harming the village’s water plant and washateria in the process. Tuluksak community members attempted to put the fire out by hauling buckets of water from the Tuluksak River, but the plant had already been breached by the time the flames were subdued.

The news of the disaster instantly hit social media, where local Alaskans were able to donate money and pitch in from afar. A widely shared GoFundMe page has so far generated around $3,000 of its $10,000 goal. Another GoFundMe page, intended for general rural Alaska COVID relief, is now directing a portion of its $90,000 towards the village.

Bottled water shipments began arriving from Bethel, the regional hub southwest of Tuluksak, that day, but harsh weather conditions and COVID-19 constraints complicated the operation. The airport’s runway was initially blocked by unplowed snow, after the village’s usual snow plower contracted coronavirus. Approximately one-third of the village has tested positive for the virus, making a reliable source of water even more vital to the community’s well-being.

The roughly 300-person village sits near a natural source of water, the Tuluksak River, but it isn’t safe to drink. Villagers have been using the river water for cleaning and laundry, but are still relying on the emergency bottled water shipments or their own personal stockpiles of filtered water for drinking purposes.

The town is currently using water from the local school, which has a running water system that takes water from the Tuluksak River. This prevents villagers from having to individually haul water from the river for household needs. However, the school’s water is also untreated, leaving the water unsafe to drink.

In the heart of winter, planned deliveries to the remote region aren’t always reliable. In result, villagers are rationing the donated water bottles, with elders taking priority.

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Two weeks after the fire, and the village’s long-term plan to reinstate drinking water is still unclear. Last week, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hosted a meeting for local and federal officials to determine a plan for restoring water service to the community.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hopes to use a portable water treatment plant to purify the river water until a permanent water plant can be installed. The portable treatment plant is currently in Bethel, and could be operating by this summer. But agencies will first have to determine if the portable plant is able to treat water from Tuluksak. Different rivers have different contaminants, and while the portable plant may be able to treat water in Bethel’s Kuskokwim River, it isn’t guaranteed to work in Tuluksak.

If the Alaskan-based temporary treatment plant doesn’t work, they will have to acquire one from the Lower 48. The delivery would have to be conducted during the summer barge season — a small window of time that could pose potential problems down the line.

In the long run, the village plans to permanently replace their water plant. They have already completed the Indian Health Services’ water plant grant application, but it will take around three or four years before a new water plant could be installed and usable.

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a contributing writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.

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