Drought-stricken Kenai Peninsula communities look for solutions

The reservoir in Nanwalek, Sept. 1, 2019 (Photo courtesy Anthony Brewster)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - After weeks of living with dwindling water supplies in their reservoirs, the towns of Nanwalek and Seldovia - and the Kenai Peninsula Borough as a whole - are grappling with how to move forward in the near term and the long terms, as they deal with predicted warming temperatures.

The town of Seldovia, population approximately 300, declared a disaster on Aug. 26 after determining that the town had just 14 days of water left at current consumption. Since then they have relied on a light weekend rain, a public campaign to reduce consumption, and emergency shipments of bottled water to hold them over.

Reduced consumption and the little bit of rain has raised the time frame for their water supplies from 14 to 17 days, according to the city manager of Seldovia. There is more rain in the forecast, but managers don’t know if it’s enough.

Dan Nelson, the emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, is worried about the winter.

“The long term concern for planning right now is if they don't have the rain, the precipitation to recharge the natural watershed, and then we hit freezing temperatures, they'll have this water issue throughout the winter,” he said, “It's very much weather dependent, but it's definitely a very big concern.”

That would require continued shipments of bottled water throughout the winter.

But they are running into another problem: previously, the community relied on the Alaska Marine Highway system to deliver the palettes of potable water, but the ferry isn't scheduled to visit the village from Jan. 12 to Aug. 26.

Seldovia (Courtesy Cassidi Cameron)

“To get bottled water shipped to us in January, February, March, we're gonna have to arrange some private barge service or some type of cargo shipment somehow that is outside of the ferry,” said Cassidi Cameron, the city manager of Seldovia.

To ship to Nanwalek, which doesn’t regularly get AMHS service, the cost is about $4,000 for ten palettes, according to Nelson, but that only lasts about a week. The Chief of Nanwalek, John Kvasnikoff, says that he’s been told that the Borough will keep sending water for as long as needed, but they are still looking at other options.

We’re looking at a RO (reverse osmosis) unit. I think that will be perfect for us,” says Kvasnikoff, “They’re expensive, but it’ll probably be worth getting one with all the money and effort and time that they’re spending.”

Seldovia is also looking at other options.

"Finding a grant and programs where we could identify an alternative water source, a backup water source, increase the size of our reservoir, increase the height of the dam, to increase the capacity of the reservoir, drilling wells, things of that sort, but we're still looking at getting the professionals and the experts on board and seeing which direction we really wanna take,” said city manager Cameron.

Larger scale concerns

But, as with many stories around Alaska these days, the scourge of climate change looms large in the longer term. Emergency manager Nelson says that he’s aware of the future outlook.

“The amount of emergencies that have come up have been more than usual," said Nelson, "Whereas, the Office of Emergency Management of the Kenai Borough has one, maybe two major responses a year, we're now looking at the Swan Lake Fire which was unprecedented in the fact that we're now past 90 days, and that same weather pattern that made that fire behavior unprecedented is now bringing us into this drought. So all the resources on the Kenai Peninsula especially at the Office of Emergency Management are simply stretched thin."

He added, “It's been a long summer.”

The borough didn’t include a section about drought in its All Hazard Mitigation Plan, updated earlier this year.

So the office that plans for emergencies now has to plan for its own future, and is considering how to expand capacity and better plan for what's to come. While no meetings are officially scheduled to discuss these issues, Nelson says it is already being discussed at an informal level.

Aside from better planning and investment to make sure that communities have reliable sources of water, the borough will likely need to expand capacity with summers predicted to increase in temperature - and thus wildfire and drought danger. Emergency declarations can help secure funding from the state and federal government in the short term, but in the long run, local communities will have to front the costs.

“It is possible that with these types of emergencies and these patterns, emergency management organizations such as mine may have to adapt and change for the future,” he said, “Every jurisdiction, every borough or city would have to front those costs.”

In any case, the state has been preoccupied by fires and the Kenai Peninsula Borough hasn’t heard a response from the state since submitting it over a week ago, leaving the borough to front the ongoing shipments of bottled water.

Communities are thus forced to put their hopes in an increasingly capricious climate.

“Hopefully the rains come,” said Cameron, of Seldovia, “We're putting a lot of faith into mother nature right now.”

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