Unalakleet endures water shortage after nasty freeze-up

A large, yellow cylindrical water tank in the snow
An example of a water storage tank in Western Alaska. This is St. Michael’s water tank in February of 2020. (JoJo Phillips/KNOM)

Unalakleet’s supply of water was running on empty following a nasty freeze-up at the end of December. As the community pulls together to conserve water, there is hope that recent funding from the federal government will help Unalakleet avoid future water shortages.

“We did have some effects from the Dec. 26 storm that interrupted our water supply out at our source, Powers Creek,” City Manager Moe Zamarron said.

Freezing rain led to a frozen pool of standing water, which shifted the community’s pump house before the New Year, reducing the flow of water into the water tank, Zamarron said. Levels were down to two feet early last week.

Zamarron said the tank didn’t reach empty this time, but it was down to about 7% of its total capacity.

“It took a lot of effort from the local community to conserve,” Zamarron said. “It was a community effort for everybody to pull together and see to it that we could turn this corner and begin the increased flow again and start building our reserves back up.”

As of Jan. 6, the community had started to put more water back into the storage tank, Zamarron said. But the repairs and resolution to the current water issues are ongoing.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded the Native Village of Unalakleet over $650,000 to develop a water haul system. The funds came from a 2021 round of Indian Community Block Grants through the American Rescue Plan.

Unalakleet has struggled with its water system in the past, with almost annually recurring shortages, contamination issues or freezing pipes at the water tank.

According to HUD, the new system will provide the community more access to treated, potable water without having to rely solely on the water tank and Powers Creek.

In the meantime, Zamarron says the residents of Unalakleet came together to conserve water, share their subsistence foods and support each other to avoid a larger disaster.

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