Update Jan. 26, 2023: Biden bans mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
When Ward Walker moved to the seaside village of Stebbins, Alaska, in 1995, he was told there would be running water within the next five years. The 63-year-old, who recently retired as vice mayor of the village of roughly 650, now says he’ll be happy if it happens before he dies.
Stebbins became Walker’s home after he married Thecla Matthias, an Alaska Native whose family’s roots in the region trace back generations. Since then, he’s been a teacher, a priest and a carpenter serving the downtrodden but tight-knit community. Walker is so connected to Stebbins that, when driving through the village in his Jeep Gladiator, there’s a good chance he’ll run into a relative.
Walker is keenly aware of the enormous challenges the village faces when there is no running water in nearly all of its homes and workplaces. Stebbins is one of more than 30 villages in Alaska that have no running water — a condition that has shaped and burdened villagers’ lives for generations. This leads to a piecemeal lifestyle that includes showering once a week, doing laundry infrequently, and living with the constant threat of disease. Overall, there are 3,300 households in rural Alaska that suffer from a lack of access to water.
But a major federal investment promises to deliver the long-overdue convenience of running water to these homes. When Congress passed a massive infrastructure bill in late 2021, it gave Stebbins and communities like it the first glimmer of hope they’d seen in decades. Among other things, the bill promised to bring running water to Alaska Native communities long neglected by federal legislation.
But those hopes may be dimmed. Interviews with public health officials, experts and residents of the state by the Investigative Reporting Workshop found it’s unlikely that Alaska Native villages will see marked improvements to their water delivery systems in the near future. Federal infrastructure projects tend to be slow to complete and difficult to implement. On top of that, Alaskan conditions present unique challenges to engineers, architects and construction planners and crews, stretching the federal funding even thinner across the state. Maintenance and operations funding is lacking.
Optimism remains, but the realities of their situation occasionally set in, Walker said.
“I’m perpetually optimistic about everything,” he said, yet “I’m not surprised when things fall apart — and they certainly have been falling apart these last 25 years.”
What’s Behind the law?
When President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, in November 2021, it was hailed as a major legislative achievement. The $1.2 trillion bill funded infrastructure improvements to bridges, highways, roads and water systems and represented the country’s largest such investment in decades. Native tribes widely regarded the bill as a positive, if incremental, step for underserved communities.
The infrastructure law sets aside a relatively small $3.5 billion for improvement to water infrastructure for rural tribal communities.
But even slices of that amount could have an impact on tribal communities, especially places like Stebbins.
Alaskans, for instance, make up less than half a percent of the U.S. population. But water-related construction projects for Indigenous peoples in the state comprise nearly a quarter of all tribal projects classified as urgent by the federal government — far more than any other state.
One of life’s complications there captures the issue. On the rugged coast about 100 miles across the Norton Sound from Nome, Stebbins is isolated from much of Alaska’s infrastructure. Because it generally lacks indoor plumbing, its residents rely on central gathering places called “washeterias,” where they do their water-intensive activities such as showering and laundry. Instead of flushing a conventional toilet, most use a honey bucket, a crude toilet-like contraption fashioned from a five-gallon bucket. Often, the village school is the only building with running water.
Stebbins’ washeteria has been infected with black mold for years, which led villagers to secure a new but temporary washeteria in October. That washeteria — which Walker describes as an “oversized mobile home” — will be in use until a permanent facility is funded and built. In the meantime, it costs $2 to shower, $4 to wash a load of laundry and $4 to dry a load of laundry.
Villagers typically shower and change clothes once a week to save water and money, Walker said. This less-than-sanitary routine creates a risk of contracting COVID-19, hepatitis, diarrhea and more, especially for children.
Even Walker, who made over $100,000 a year as the vice mayor and in his additional capacity as the village’s mental health clinician, still uses a honey bucket. He and his wife also use paper plates to keep their washing costs down and often reuse them to cover their honey bucket to trap unpleasant odors.
All of this amounts to an environment that is not sanitary for the vast majority of the village. According to a 2021 environmental study, a person in a typical rural Alaska household without running water uses fewer than five gallons of water per day, far short of the daily 14.2 gallons the World Health Organization recommends. Even if Alaska Native communities are able to obtain sufficient water by collecting rainwater or hauling water from upstream waterways, its quality is often suspect because of high concentrations of toxic chemicals.
Some communities in Alaska “have been waiting for 50 years for water and sanitation services,” said Kaitlin Mattos, an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who specializes in water, sanitation and hygiene. But solving the problem will be difficult. “I think it’s going to take a long time.”
Still, the process of securing running water for tribal communities in Alaska has begun in the nation’s capital.
Over five fiscal years, the federal government will fund the construction of various water-related projects through the Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The health service will pull from its list of queued projects and allocate funding based on the perceived need and geographic priority. The water projects are divided and ordered into three tiers of priority, with Alaska’s projects totaling over $3 billion in estimated costs as of 2021. Stebbins alone has five projects totaling about $63 million; all but one are in the first tier of priority.
But those who have been waiting so long have little confidence that the projects will be constructed within the bill’s five-year funding life. To begin with, the bill allocates $581 million for projects in the first tier during fiscal year 2022; second- and third-tier projects get only $33 million.
Experts familiar with the legislation estimated that projects would begin construction within five to 10 years.
“It will be over the next five years,” said Karen Burgess, an EPA official who specializes in water issues for the region, “but then projects will be proceeding even beyond that time with the money that’s provided.”
Completing some projects could take many years, Burgess said, and bigger undertakings may require a decade.
However, before his death in October 2022, Sean Lee, the sanitation manager for Norton Sound Health Corporation — a nonprofit that works to improve health for Native Alaskans — said some of the ground construction for pipe and sewer projects in Stebbins would be completed as early as 2024.
Of Alaska’s 363 projects on the IHS list, 113 are classified as urgent and listed in the first tier. They account for nearly a quarter of the top-priority projects.
Julian Gonzalez, a lawyer and lobbyist for the nonprofit organization Earthjustice, said that while the bill is a good start, its nationwide provisions are insufficient given the vast number of people without access to clean, running water.
“The needs are numbers that dwarf the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Gonzalez said. “Yeah, this is unprecedented, but also, this may not reach most of the people who need it.”
Mary Grant, who directs Food and Water Watch’s Public Water for All Campaign, echoed his sentiment. Based on the EPA’s estimates, she said, the bill funded only 7% of the country’s water and sewer infrastructure needs.
IHS is an oddity within HHS because it provides health care directly to tribes, while HHS’ other eight operating agencies dole funds to states that distribute them to hospitals, clinic networks and city health authorities, according to one legislative analyst who asked not to be quoted because they didn’t have permission to speak to the media.
Neither IHS nor the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which processes applications for tribal project funding, responded to repeated requests for comment about the status of grant applications and projects.
What the Law Doesn’t Fund
The new law also provides no direct funding for ongoing maintenance and operations. That means any systems built with funds from the law may not have the taxable base to pay for continuing operations, and there may not be enough local workers with the skills or equipment to sustain operations.
“When you have your water system in place, you need someone to go out and check for water quality — to be operating, maintaining the system, to identify when a line might need replacement,” said Heather Tanana, who is part a member of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor of law at the University of Utah. “If you don’t do that, then you’re threatening continuation of services to the community.”
Systems that aren’t properly maintained wear out faster, and deferring maintenance can lead to catastrophic failures, Grant of Food and Water Watch said.
Many Alaska villages struggle to attract and retain water operators, a job that requires a lot of technical expertise but often pays little.
“Do they have a water operator that’s trained and able to do these things?” Tanana said. “A lot of times the tribe has to rely on outside people to come into the community and they oftentimes might not stay very long. So you’re getting a lot of turnover.”
Gonzalez said a lack of maintenance has long plagued tribal water infrastructure, compounding the struggles to secure long-term funding.
There are members of Congress “who don’t want to reward poor management,” Gonzalez said.
More than a third of Alaska’s 363 projects on the list are designated by IHS as “infeasible,” meaning they are possible to construct but would require so much in time and resources that they are considered a lower priority.
Although the official line is that they will eventually be completed, in practice, there have not yet been tangible indications that infeasible projects will be completed any time soon, if at all.
“If you’re infeasible,” said Anna Maria Ortiz, the director of the natural resources and environment team at the Government Accountability Office, “you’re not even considered in the priority list anymore.”
Some experts raise questions about the usefulness of building water infrastructure against the backdrop of worsening climate impacts. Erosion in particular is an existential threat for dozens of Native communities on Alaska’s coast, many of which officials have described as literally “washing away.”
“In Alaska, we have 144 environmentally threatened communities, which is 43% of all our communities in our state,” said Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, director of climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
“I will tell you that every community that does not have water and sanitation services, that is their highest priority,” said Schaeffer, an Alaska Native. “But how do we create a sustainable solution?”
Risks of Living With Sparse Water Access
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people worldwide were encouraged to wash their hands frequently to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
But in remote Alaskan villages, where in-home water is scarce and most residents rely on public water sources, even simple hand-washing and social distancing become difficult.
“When you don’t have water at home, you have to go to public places to find water,” Grant said, “so it’s very hard to stay safe.”
Although it took longer for COVID-19 to spread to remote Native Alaskans, when it did arrive, the toll was devastating.
Indigenous people represent 16% of Alaska’s population, yet have accounted for 27% of COVID-19 deaths, according to recent state data. When Stebbins went into lockdown for the second time last April, only five people could visit the laundromat at a time; 10 people were allowed in the local store.
To researchers who have studied water access in Alaska for years, the quick spread of the virus in the region was tragic but not surprising.
Laura Eichelberger, senior epidemiology and health research consultant at the National Tribal Water Center, said that lack of water and sanitation played a significant role.
“What we’re really worried about,” Eichelberger said, in the absence of water and sanitation service, is “water wash diseases — so, diseases where you don’t have enough water to keep your hands clean.”
Recent research, Eichelberger said, has shown “associations between not having running water and higher rates of respiratory infection, skin infection, and to a lesser extent, gastrointestinal infection.”
Because of the cost and difficulty of hauling water, Eichelberger said some households recycle what water they do have using communal “wash basins” where much of the hand-washing is done.
“So when you wash your hands, you get the germs and fecal matter off of your hands, it ends up in that wash basin,” Eichelberger said. “And then the next person comes along, washes their hands from the dirty water, and your hands have never really been cleaned.”
What water villagers are able to access may not be safe to consume. Activists say that uncontained landfills and chemicals from hundreds of U.S. military sites around the state have contaminated key drinking water sources.
“We have a lot of really unlined, uncontrolled dump sites in Alaska that are leaching harmful chemicals as well as infectious agents,” said Pamela Miller, an environmental activist in Anchorage.
In some villages, residents unwittingly haul water from contaminated sources, and in others, area water systems draw water from toxic rivers. Even those who opt to collect rainwater aren’t safe, Miller said, as it still contains harmful chemicals.
Miller has been on the front lines in the fight to eliminate harmful chemicals in Alaska Native villages for 25 years, founding the organization Alaska Community Action on Toxics in 1997.
“The Arctic has become a hemispheric sink for chemicals, especially persistent chemicals,” Miller said. “Indigenous peoples of the North have some of the highest levels of these persistent chemicals even though, by and large, they’re not manufactured here.”
Toxic chemicals are also carried into the region on wind and ocean currents and accumulate in fish, wildlife and ultimately people, she said. Even at low exposure rates, Miller said, they can cause a wide range of serious health effects, among them cancer, endocrine disorders such as thyroid disruption, and reproductive impairment.
Despite the risks, some water-access activists bemoan the tightening of EPA regulations that Miller and others advocate, saying they slow construction and upgrades of water systems.
Meanwhile, the state’s tourism bureau and media often portray the state as having a crystalline, almost utopian oasis with lake-laden landscapes and clear, crisp streams. While such heavenly landscapes do exist — Alaska has routinely been ranked as one of the country’s most beautiful and picturesque states — that characterization sits in stark contrast to the realities of daily life for many.
New Challenges for Northern Water
Bureaucrats on the ground appear to be relatively optimistic about the prospect of universal water access in the near future. Jeff Currey, a longtime materials engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation who focuses on the northern region, said a bulk of recent infrastructural investments will be eaten up by inflationary costs, but he remains hopeful.
“Running water and stuff is the expectation in the future,” Currey said, “and we’ll get there over time.”
In the Alaska House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, whose district is adjacent to Stebbins, said access to water isn’t a particularly polarizing issue and doesn’t exercise a significant amount of influence in the state Capitol. Zulkosky — who is the only Alaska Native woman in the state’s Legislature — moonlights as a tribal health executive in her hometown of Bethel and is acutely aware of the needs of Indigenous constituents. Her colleagues, however, are not as attuned to the struggles of Alaska Natives.
“There’s not really a dynamic related to this issue, because I don’t know how broadly the Legislature and my colleagues are even familiar with this issue,” Zulkosky said.
Schaeffer said the lack of basic plumbing and access to clean water is something no one should endure, but also said it is important to note that Native people have shown resilience to this struggle and many more over the past centuries.
“Indigenous people have a rich culture and subsistence lifestyle that keeps them alive,” Schaeffer said.
Mattos, the Fort Lewis College professor, echoed this sentiment. She said Alaskan Natives have existed for thousands of years, so “they seem to have developed really strong and really resilient strategies.”
It is important to not just see the pain of Native communities, but also their resourcefulness and will to survive, Mattos said. The victories of the infrastructure law, she emphasized, are not incidental.
“Definitely don’t be under the impression that those communities are sitting around waiting for this federal legislation,” Mattos said. “There are really strong activists and leaders in so many of those communities at every different level who have been advocating and pushing for this for a very long time.”
In the meantime, unserved communities are likely to rely on rainwater collection, GoFundMe campaigns and public donations to fulfill their water-related needs.
In Stebbins, Ward Walker is taking the long view. Water may not flow through Stebbins today or tomorrow, but a devotion to the cause is paramount for him.
“That’s the reason why I’m in city government,” Walker said, “to try to make everything happen so that we have the best chance of getting water and sewer.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer’s name and title. IRW regrets the error. This update also clarifies Laura Eichelberger’s comments on water access and health care.
Reporters Lauren Berryman and Carley Welch, formerly with IRW, also contributed to this story.