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KNBA - Climate change a possible threat to drinking water sources in Alaska


The lack of running water and flush toilets in more than three thousand Alaska homes causes health problems, but another issue looms even larger:  that’s the effects of climate change on drinking water sources. That’s according to scientists at the international Water Innovations for Healthy Arctic Homes conference in Anchorage this week. 

Andrew Madeiros is a researcher with York University in Toronto, Canada. He started his career as a paleo limnologist – that is, someone who studies lakes over the eons. He said his interests shifted to the modern era as he studied freshwater sources in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost region. As permafrost that had held water on the surface - for say ten thousand years - melted, he saw dramatic and startling changes.

“We started seeing in the towns themselves drastic reductions in their water supply, very visible changes including lake desiccations, a complete loss of water at some period of time,” said Madeiros. “And in recent years in some of the communities in Nunavut, you’ve had that community run out of water, literally drain the lake dry. And that’s obviously a very big problem when you have one source for water for the community.”

Other changes included, say, a slight decrease in rainfall or snow combined with a sudden spring snow melt that turned a river into a raging torrent, then to an empty riverbed.

But Medeiros said planning falls by the wayside in an emergency. In one case, an agency built a pipeline to a new water source, but computer simulations show the  multi-million dollar solution will buy only a few years of time before the new water source dries up.

“It comes from very rapid change in a very short period of time and no governance or policy direction on what to do in a changing future,” said Madeiros.

Facilities Program Manager Bill Griffith with the state’s Village Safe Water program, said funding that comes and goes, a reflection of changing political climates, leaves Alaska with no single agency in charge of planning for those kinds of impacts in Alaska.

“We’re just beginning to really grasp I think the severity and the widespread impact of climate changes on access to water and safe water sources,” said Griffith.

Mayor and tribal vice president Blanche Akhiok Garni of Teller, in Northwest Alaska, said villagers there rely on a creek for drinking water.

“We have a honeybucket lagoon in our landfill built on top of the hill and that overflows when it rains and it goes into our creek,” said Garni. “So that’s one of our biggest concerns.”

She said the location of the landfill and sewage lagoon is a long-standing problem.

“It was designed to last ten years,” said Garni. “Nobody thought that 35, 40 years later that we would still be using honeybuckets.”

Garni said they have only a short period to fill their water tank, and climate change is cutting into that window of time.

“We cannot pump the water when it rains, and it’s been raining a lot later in a certain time of year, and we’ve been getting less snow,” said Garni.

Village Safe Water manager Bill Griffith said the Denali Commission, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium will be looking for ways to help provide water security through  comprehensive research, monitoring of freshwater sources, and long-range planning.

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