Drought causing water shortages in Southcentral Alaska communities

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Smoke from wildfires obscuring the Chugach Mountains in Anchorage, Alaska, on Aug. 22, 2019. Due to the hot, dry summer, several communities in Southcentral Alaska are facing water shortages. (Mark Thiessen/AP Photo)
After an unprecedented summer drought drained reservoirs and wells across Alaska, hundreds of people face immediate water shortages — and lingering questions about the future.

In Chignik Lagoon, village administrators are assessing long-term options after local aquifers ran dry last month. In Homer, farmers are pumping water and pondering new wells as rain catchment tanks and underground spring boxes run low. Reservoirs evaporated in Nanwalek and Tatitlek. In Seldovia, local officials estimate the community reservoir holds only 16 days’ worth of water.

“It’s a different reality for us,” said Seldovia City Manager Cassidi Cameron. “It’s something that we never thought we’d face.”

Located near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, at the edge of Kachemak Bay, Seldovia draws water from a reservoir fed by rainfall and snowpack, Cameron said. This year, there’s not enough. As of August 27, more than five percent of the state —including Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough — was experiencing severe drought, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. It’s the most intense period of drought recorded in Alaska since the U.S. Drought Monitor began nearly 20 years ago.

When the hot, dry conditions depleted Seldovia’s reservoir, city officials issued a disaster declaration, according to Cameron. Non-potable water stations were set up to provide water for toilets, dish-washing and gardening. The city ordered 10 pallets of drinking water to arrive by ferry Sept. 1; more pallets are scheduled to arrive Thursday.

“We’re just on this mode right now of looking at the short, short-term,” Cameron said.

Worries for the future

The long-term outlook is less clear, she said. Community leaders have “lightly” discussed whether it would be feasible, if the drought were to continue, to ship in a freshwater processing or desalination plant. They’ve also talked about potential new water sources.

“I think that’s just a bridge we have to cross as our situation unfolds,” she said. “That’s a very long-term situation that we’re looking at.”

Further down the peninsula, the village of Nanwalek is also navigating new long-term questions about water. The community declared an emergency after the waterline in the local reservoir fell below the level necessary for an intake valve to supply the community’s water system. It rained over the weekend, but not enough, residents said. On Tuesday morning, a 34-foot landing craft from Homer delivered 3,000 pounds of drinking water in five-gallon jugs. Captain Curtis Jackson of Mako’s Water Taxi said it was his third such trip since Nanwalek’s water shortage began. He remains on call for more, he said.

The shortages have prompted the Department of Environmental Conservation to issue boil water notices for Nanwalek and the Prince William Sound community of Tatitlek, where the local reservoir also went dry, according to the DEC. The agency issued a similar notice to the Alaska Peninsula community of Chignik Lagoon — the wells there have gone dry, too.

Michelle Anderson, Chignik Lagoon’s village administrator, said the community planned to complete a hydrogeographical study to evaluate the long-term options. The community has experienced brief water shortages before, but the recent dry summer season “just made the situation much worse.”

“The bottom line, I think, is going to be drilling new wells, or setting up a new system to pull from surface water,” she said.

Effects on agriculture

While Alaskans across the state are making similar plans, some are adjusting to the warmer weather in different ways.

For farmers in Homer, the abnormally warm, dry summer has led to reduced watering schedules, depleted reserves and increased labor demands — but also dryer garlic, firmer tomatoes and larger apples.

“The apples got really big this summer with all the sunshine,” said Don McNamara, co-owner of Homer’s Oceanside Farms.

The farm — with its 10 high tunnels, half-acre of potatoes and outdoor gardens — is supplied by groundwater collected in spring boxes, and a small creek that’s currently dry, McNamara said. While he’d prefer to water daily, by the end of August, there was only enough water to do it twice a week at most. Now he and his wife, Donna, are considering drilling a new well.

“We thought our holding tanks and the little bit of spring boxes that we had would cover our needs, but they’re not taking care of it,” he said.

Just up the road, Synergy Gardens co-owner Lori Jenkins said her family relies on rain catchment tanks and a 30-foot irrigation pond. When the tanks ran low this summer, they began pumping water from the pond. The dry weather has a trickle-down effect, she said.

“It just takes a lot more attention, a lot more time, a lot more labor,” she said. “But we haven’t lost any crops, because we had that irrigation pond put in.”

Jenkins said the 30-foot pond, which replaced several smaller ponds, was installed following droughts in 2015 and 2016.

“We realized we needed a larger volume of water,” she said.

Those old ponds are now totally dry, Jenkins said.

Conserve water, authorities urge
A man waters grass on July 4, 2019 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Lance King/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, as the water shortages continued across Southcentral Alaska, the City of Seldovia began distributing drinking water to local residents, restricting households to five gallons each. As of Wednesday, there were approximately 2.5 million gallons of water — less than 17 days’ worth — left in the city reservoir, according to a daily update released by the city clerk.

“CONSERVE CONSERVE CONSERVE!” the update read. “THE RAIN IS NICE, BUT WE STILL NEED MORE PRECIPITATION!”

Cameron, the city manager, said Alaska communities need to start planning for things that once seemed impossible. Amid lush rainforests, miles of coastline and abundant rivers, running out of water might seem like something that could never happen, Cameron said.

“Well, never say never,” she said. “We, as a community and as a state, need to start looking at situations that we thought would never happen to us, and make plans, because this could very well be the norm for us at this point — these weather patterns are just too abnormal to ignore, and they do have repercussions.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Even with its massive water resources, Canada is not immune to dramatic droughts, Radio Canada International

Finland: Warmer, drier summer than usual in most of Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenlanders stay chill as the world reacts to its heatwave, CBC News

Russia: A hot summer across the Arctic, Russian meteorological institute says, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish farmers cautiously optimistic about harvest after last year’s drought, Radio Sweden

United States: Extreme weather fuelling wildfires in Southcentral Alaska, Alaska Public Media

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Kirsten Swann, Alaska Public Media

Kirsten Swann, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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