Government and nonprofits shakeup village of Oscarville with clean water and cheaper power

Oscarville students dance in the village school in February 2016.

Oscarville students dance in the village school in February 2016. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

A group of representatives from a variety of government and nonprofit agencies are headed to Oscarville on Friday. The group is going there to observe the changes that have been made to the village since it became a pilot project for what is being called a holistic approach to community development.

Jack Hebert of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center was one the people who came up with the idea of working with a community so small that it did not have the capacity to do its own planning. The group included people from the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others. They approached the Association of Village Council Presidents to see which community would be a good pilot project for their holistic approach.

“AVCP recommended Oscarville because the community of Oscarville is very tight knit,” said Brent Latham, a program administrator with AVCP. “They work well together. They spearhead projects, and that is really needed to get things done.”

Though it was connected to Bethel’s electric utility by a six-mile-long cable, Oscarville was seeing many of the challenges facing much of bush Alaska. The village of about 60 people has no roads in or out. During fall freeze-up and spring breakup, residents are stuck in the village, unable to get to Bethel for groceries or health care.

The pilot project started with a meeting in Bethel two years ago and included a site visit to Oscarville, and the community met with agency people. At first, the residents thought what they wanted was a recreational facility for the kids and community, but after discussing the difference between what they wanted and what they needed, it became obvious that what they needed was much more basic: water.

Hebert and others at the initial meeting did not know that the village well had failed some time ago and that families were making do with rainwater, melting snow, and river water. Unfortunately, Oscarville is downstream from Bethel’s wastewater discharge.

“So there were some real health concerns,” said Hebert. “And this is the part that the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium was addressing. And that’s being done now. They have a new well that’s been drilled. It has to be developed and brought into their water treatment plant with upgrades there, but now they’re going to have water.”

That left another big need: cheaper electricity. Though Oscarville is part of the Bethel grid, in that it has a line coming into the community, there was only one official buyer: the village corporation, which was not eligible for the state’s Power Cost Equalization subsidy. The community then had its own grid, and each household paid for its share of the village’s bill.

“That means they were paying four times more for power than people in Bethel,” said Hebert. “This is a small community with very little economic resources paying their bills, but basically held to that standard: one meter for a whole town, plus the line-loss.”

The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative helped Oscarville bring its grid up to current standards and helped install meters that allow villagers to qualify for Power Cost Equalization. Oscarville’s electricity now costs almost the same as what’s paid by homeowners in Bethel.

There are other projects in the pipeline, like more energy efficient buildings, but according to Hebert the biggest change is that the community feels it now has control over its future and doesn’t have to just get by with whatever is provided.

“I think the greatest success of Oscarville has been that sense of empowerment of the people themselves,” said Hebert. “Of taking control of where that community is going to go.”

Members of the group representing agencies and nonprofits are visiting Oscarville Friday, and are hoping to come away with ideas that they can apply in other small communities.

“It was an advantage for us on the scalability of this first pilot project on the holistic approach for Oscarville to be that size, because we could get our hands around it,” said Hebert.

“But what we want to do, and what we are working on at the housing research center, is a template for the holistic approach for other communities, communities that are larger. We are taking that same approach with our multi-agency partners and the community of Newtok to develop a whole new community at Mertarvik because of climate change and issues they are having to deal with.”

Among the future plans for Oscarville are a new boat ramp for the village, a board-road extension to Bethel, and that multipurpose building the community wanted when the planning process began.

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