In a rainforest, Southeast Alaska towns face extreme drought

The city of Wrangell declared a red alert water watch in March 2018.

The city of Wrangell declared a red alert water watch in March 2018. (KSTK file photo)

Believe it or not, one of the worst droughts in the nation is in Southeast Alaska. That’s according to federal meteorologists.

Ground zero for the drought is Wrangell, a city that’s struggled for years to keep up with summer water demand.

Wrangell recently issued a low-level water watch. Residents are asked to cut back water usage where they can. It’s something Wrangell’s locals are used to.

“We got some rain yesterday. As long as we get a little bit every day, I’m not too concerned about it,” said Wrangell resident Dawn Welch. “Everyone just needs to do their part.”

For years, Wrangell has struggled to meet peak demand for water in the summer. That has less to do with weather than it has to do with the city’s aging infrastructure. The city’s slow-sand filtration plant is, well, slow. It hasn’t treated water fast enough to meet the extra demand from the town’s seafood processors and other summer users.

Things were so bad in 2016 that the city declared a disaster emergency.

But a drought in a rainforest? That’s another factor that’s piling on a city that’s long had water woes.

Right now, the National Weather Service says Southeast’s drought is among the worst in the nation. Other places may have received less rainfall, but Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau, points to the actual difference of precipitation. Since September 2017, nearby Ketchikan received 60 inches less precipitation than usual.

Jacobs also points to the drought’s ecological and economic impacts, most notably to the region’s hydropower supply.

“To me, living in a temperate rainforest, (the drought is) pretty exceptional,” Jacobs said. “We haven’t seen that in the 20 years since the (U.S.) Drought Monitor began.”

The three-month forecast gives little clarity for the summer months. There are equal chances that the region will get more, less or average rainfall. But June is typically a dryer month anyway.

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka circulated this image on social media. It shows the lack of water running into Wrangell’s reservoirs. (Photo courtesy city of Wrangell)

Wrangell’s water supply comes from two reservoirs. Levels are healthy right now — even overflowing. But the flume that feeds water into them is already dry.

“The stream that feeds our reservoirs is really just a little bit more than a trickle,” said Lisa Von Bargen, Wrangell’s city manager.

She’s expecting warmer, dryer weather, to go along with about 50% less snowpack than last year.

Wrangell has stopped selling water to visiting cruise ships. That’s not a big loss – maybe a few hundreds of dollars per ship. But large water users that the city doesn’t want to disappoint are the two seafood processors in town.

During the 2016 water emergency, the city partially restricted water usage to the Trident Seafoods and Sea Level Seafoods plants.

Plant managers have since said they conserve more — for example, they use more salty seawater where they can. And they recycle more fresh water.

The two processors didn’t respond to requests for comment. But both are expecting a good season for Dungeness crab and chum salmon. And that’s going to require plenty of fresh water.

Von Bargen does not want to disappoint them: They’re big taxpayers, in both property tax and raw fish tax.

“That doesn’t take into consideration all the economic benefit that is going to the private sector,” she said.

For now, it’s wait-and-see at Wrangell’s city hall.

“If we need to increase the water watch because we see water levels become more concerning, we will not hesitate to do that,” Von Bargen said. “And we ask the community to hang in there with us.”

In the meantime, the city is working on its infrastructure and processing: Fixing leaks and recapturing water disposed of during the filtration process. The city had been losing up to half of its treated water due to leaks and cleaning, and it’s gradually closing the gap.

The city is also sourcing from a well, which could provide up to 30,000 gallons of non-potable water as needed for road work. The city approved the purchase of a $9 million water plant over a year ago. But work hasn’t begun, as the funding isn’t yet in place.

Alaska has a lot going on right now.

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