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3/2/15 - State faces huge gap between need and funding for rural sanitation

State contributes 25% required match for federal funds

Members of the Legislative Bush Caucus last week in a “Lunch and Learn” session on rural sanitation were told about 900 million dollars is needed to build, replace and maintain rural sanitation systems. Last year the state put about $9 million, and federal agencies put $51 million, toward rural sanitation in Alaska. The combined 60 million dollars is less than half the amount allocated ten years ago.

David Beveridge, the director of project management at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), said Alaska is competing with other states for its share of a shrinking pool of federal funding.

"If you look through the Village Safe Water program, it gets matched with federal dollars on a 25-75 percent ratio," said Beveridge. "So for any 25 dollars, the federal government will kick in the 75 dollars. So that's been a big component of the funding in Alaska and that's gone down."

The issue is one of public health, according to Bill Griffith, the Facility Program Manager for Village Safe Water with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He told Legislators recent studies show Alaskans without clean water and flush toilets experience dramatically higher rates of hospitalization for respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

"Those rates were anywhere from 5 times greater to 11 times greater in villages in Alaska with less than 10% of homes served," said Griffith.

And he said, a significant number of Alaskan communities are un-served or under-served.

"There's about 30 villages around the state that still don't have running water and sewer to any homes," said Griffith, "coupled with about a dozen or so communities that have what we call small haul systems where they use trailers to bring water to homes and then they use different trailers to pick up sewage."

Climate change effects, such as melting permafrost, are adding to the magnitude of the issue. Gavin Dixon manages a Rural Energy Initiative for ANTHC.

"We're having homes where we have connections to homes with Arctic pipes. Homes will settle and pipes don't. So there's differential settling and pipes break away from the houses," said Dixon. "There's a lot of conditions that are happening. We have the flooding. We don't have the sea ice to protect the shores in a lot of cases. We look at what happened in Kotlik -- it wiped basically almost the whole system out in just a matter of hours. " said Dixon. 

Dixon says energy audits show that investments of an average of 80-thousand dollars per community for little fixes would return much more in energy cost savings in just four or five years. He says those savings in energy costs would boost local economies and cut state spending for power cost equalization subsidies.

Rep. Neal Foster, of Nome, says improving rural sanitation would boost the state’s economy. And he says, Legislators would create an uproar if they experienced the same conditions.

"Boy, if we ever took every toilet out of this building, you know it would be a revolution," said Foster. "We wouldn't stand for people essentially living in a third-world type situation. So I think it's something that needs to be made a priority. I think that we have to bring the people at the lowest rungs up before we can kind of move forward as a state."

Agencies and tribes are collaborating to improve operator training and reduce operating costs . And they're working with the private sector to create innovative designs  well suited to Arctic conditions. 

Alaska Airlines has resumed regular service after volcanic eruptions in Russia led to several flight cancelations over the weekend. Flights to and from Nome and Bethel were canceled Saturday due to reduced visibility. A spokesperson said this morning no flights were canceled Sunday and none are expected today [Monday] due to ash emissions. The Russian volcano observatory reports continued unrest but little to no ash emissions from three volcanoes on the Kamchatka peninsula.

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