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Alaska Villages Run Dry And Residents Worry About A 'Future Of No Water'

Residents are desperately trying to conserve water in the Native village of Nanwalek, located on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. The village, home to the Sugpiaq tribe, is currently in a severe drought.

Nina Kvasnikoff's family is eating off paper plates, collecting water from the ocean to flush toilets and washing themselves with sponges.

"It doesn't feel like you're clean. You feel like you're just splattering a little bit of water," she says.

Last month, Nanwalek officials started shutting the water off for 12 hours every night, and the state has issued a "boil water" notice. But recently, Kvasnikoff decided she had had enough of the extreme conservation. She and her family jumped on an airplane to the nearest city for a break.

"So that's a lot of money to do that, but you do what you have to do," she says.

Kvasnikoff says that she grew up without running water but that at least back then, fresh water felt plentiful. Not so, anymore.

A community crisis

The village of Nanwalek usually receives roughly 6 inches of rain each summer, but this summer, it has only received about 1.5 inches.

John Kvasnikoff is the village's chief and Nina Kvasnikoff's brother-in-law. He says Nanwalek's leaders realized its reservoir was running low about a month ago because of lack of rain and low snowpack.

"We really didn't have a plan, but then we started calling these agencies and [saying] 'Look we're running out of water,' " he says.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough shipped in hundreds of gallons of water for Nanwalek residents as the water crisis worsened.
Renee Gross / KBBI
The Kenai Peninsula Borough shipped in hundreds of gallons of water for Nanwalek residents as the water crisis worsened.

Local agencies, communities and the borough government have flown and barged water to the village. He says the water has gotten low before, but it hasn't caused an emergency since 2003. Kvasnikoff adds that the village's growing population of roughly 300 residents, and old leaky pipes aren't helping.

"We're in line to get a new water system to replace all the old beat up water line that we have now," he says.

The village is considering increasing the size of its reservoir and raising funds to buy a reverse osmosis machine so residents could purify water from the ocean for drinking.

A summer of record-breaking heat

Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation says six communities dealt with water shortages this summer, more than any summer in recent memory.

"The warming climate will mean that we will want to be prepared in the future for these kinds of events," says Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

What's going to happen if this keeps going? If this is our future of no water, what's going to happen to everybody?

This summer, areas across the state have seen record heat and dryness, and the heat isn't just affecting people.

"So this summer, we saw reported from all around the state, reports of dead salmon and unspawned salmon," Thoman says. "This could be due to a lot of reasons, but the obvious thing is the water. In many rivers it was extremely warm."

Ivana Ash says the impact on the fish is just as concerning to her as the impact on the drinking water. She recently returned home to Nanwalek after being away at college.

"I want to stay," she says. "I want to help my parents because I haven't been home for quite some time and would like to spend some time with the elders."

But she says that if she can find a job elsewhere, she'll take it.

"I also do want to be in a place where there is some water, and I don't feel bad about drinking it or taking a shower," she says.

Moving is something that some other Nanwalek residents, including Nina Kvasnikoff, are considering. She says her family has been living in the area for generations and her Sugpiaq culture is deeply tied to this land. But this summer changed things for her.

"It scared me a lot," she says. "What's going to happen if this keeps going? If this is our future of no water, what's going to happen to everybody?"

Copyright 2019 KBBI

Renee joined KBBI in 2017 as a general assignment reporter and host. Her work has appeared on such shows as Weekend Edition Saturday, The World, Marketplace and Studio 360. Renee previously interned as a reporter for KPCC in Los Angeles and as a producer for Stateside at Michigan Radio. Her work has earned her numerous press club awards. She holds an M.S. in journalism from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in women's studies from the University of Michigan.