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Water infrastructure act to benefit Alaska

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Courtesy of Fluence Corporation

Many Alaska residents have long needed improvements to water and wastewater treatment. Help is now being provided through a combination of legislation — namely, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act — and other government funding. The act, originally known as the Water Resources Development Act, was signed into law December 16, 2016. It covers projects across the United States, including provisions to bring water and sewer infrastructure to parts of Alaska.

There are 30 communities in the state without water or wastewater services, an improvement over 2012, when 41 communities lacked these services. An estimated 3,300 rural Alaska homes currently don’t have running water or a flush toilets. The geography and geology of the state, coupled with weather conditions, make construction an expensive challenge.

As originally written, the bill would have provided $1.4 billion for projects; this is now $300 million in funding to be provided across a five-year span. Some of the funding will provide improvements to maritime infrastructure, including funding harbor construction.

Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan told KNOM radio:

I think it’s going to disproportionately benefit Alaska, because we have the most challenges on this issue.

A $27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development will be used for various water, sewer, and solid waste projects in the state. The state is providing $9 million in matching funds.

Most of the projects are in rural areas where poverty is persistent. In addition to technical assistance and training, the funds are earmarked to cover preliminary engineering and planning for much-needed facilities, one of which will be a $3.2 million wastewater infrastructure project in Saxman, Alaska.

Improvements in Palmer

One much anticipated project to be funded is a wastewater treatment upgrade for the city of Palmer. The city has systemic issues, including high ammonia levels. Noncompliance would be resolved by installing a moving bed biofilm reactor (MBBR) at the plant, which was originally constructed in the 1950s. The technology was chosen because it is reportedly works better in colder climates. It will be paid for with an $8.3 million federal grant-loan, combined with a $2.5 million grant from the state of Alaska, as well as $1 million in self-funding.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there were more than 2,000 discharge permit violations by the Palmer plant between June 2010 and February 2015. In addition to high levels of ammonia, the plant was cited for violations for its pH levels, and high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, biochemical oxygen demand, and total suspended solids in its discharges.

In mid-February 2017, the city agreed to pay some $200 million in fines. According to the Alaska Dispatch News, these were assessed as part of the city’s settlement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the EPA, and the Department of Justice. The plant upgrade is a part of compliance with a consent order, which is expected to also increase residential utility rates.

Alaska’s infrastructure earned the state a C- overall on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest infrastructure report card. It was the first time the state public works were assessed by the organization. The state earned a failing grade for its water systems, and will need $812 million in drinking water infrastructure alone in the coming 20 years.

In comparison, most states earned a D+ on the report. In addition to water systems, bridges and roads were also evaluated, an area where Alaska did somewhat better.

‘Two Alaskas’

Greg Kinney, governor of the American Society of Civil Engineers, explained that it was challenging to give the state an overall grade, considering how different conditions are in urban and rural areas. He explained:

In terms of clean water, we actually have some challenges that put us below Puerto Rico. […] In terms of just the distribution of water and handling of wastewater, we really are living in two Alaskas, if not three.

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