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KNBA News - Changes to water, sewer grant requirements in question

Sept. 3, 2015

Change affects whether villages can get funds to fix existing water and sewer systems or only to replace them

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA, with assistance from Matthew Smith, KNOM

Wednesday [Sept. 2, 2015] evening in Kotzebue President Obama spoke to the lack of running water and flush toilets in Alaska, where more than 30 rural, predominantly Alaska Native, communities lack running water and flush toilets. The President said changes to the eligibility requirements for grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Alaska Village Grants program will help avert catastrophes.

"You shouldn't wait until disaster strikes," said Obama. "We should see if we can invest in communities before disaster strikes to prevent it. So today we're announcing more than $17 million in USDA rural water grants for infrastructure in remote Alaska communities."

Seventeen million dollars adds a third again as much money as last year's total federal allocation of $51 million. The state met those grants with a match of $7 million.

Andy Teuber is board chair and president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He said the funding is much needed to improve public health.

“Those children living in those rural communities with limited access are five times more likely to be hospitalized for those lower respiratory infections and 11 times more likely to be hospitalized for pneumonia” said Teuber. “So there's a substantial number of communities and community members across rural Alaska that are in need.”

In a prepared statement, the White House said the word "dire" was being removed from eligibility requirements for the USDA grants.  Teuber said the word “dire” historically has meant “honeybuckets.” So changing the requirement removes a significant barrier to keeping existing systems up and running.

“The White House statement reaffirms that what we understand to be the President's own stated priority to ensure that federal resources are effectively used to avoid public health risks and prevent far costlier infrastructure rehabilitation after the system fails,” said Teuber. 

But in an interview earlier in the day of the President's speech, USDA Director for Rural Development in Alaska Jim Nordland said the word "dire" wasn't meant to be taken out of the regulation.

"I think there was a mistake on that. There has been some changes in the regulation but there are still communities in Alaska that are on honey buckets, that are in dire situations,” said Nordland. “The incidence of water-borne disease is very high. It's just unacceptable to have communities in Alaska still on honey buckets.” 

Nordland agrees with Teuber that the new money will help improve public health but much more is needed. He also applauds the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Village Safe Water Program and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for their efforts to find more cost effective systems. 

Note: An earlier version of this story was based on a White House statement. This version adds the President's comment.