Thursday, May 23, 2013
Dwindling Federal Dollars Jeopardize Rural Alaska Water Quality
About 75 percent of the money to fix Alaska’s water systems comes from the federal government. But since 2004, funding has been dramatically reduced. Will the state pick up the tab?
Water systems, or the lack thereof, are making Alaskans sick across the state.
It would take at least $700 million to fix just what the Department of Environmental Conservation considers “serious health issues.”
But the Eye Team discovered that the funding just isn’t available any more, leaving the state to make some tough decisions about who gets safe water and who doesn’t.
"The lack of access to running water inside somebody's house is associated with increased respiratory illnesses like influenza, pneumonia, and skin infections like boils, soft tissue infections, staph, and also MRSA,” said Dr. Michael Cooper from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Recent studies published in national health journals show that outbreaks of infectious diseases caused by lack of clean water are not only more prevalent in rural Alaska, but that infections are often more serious.
“It certainly concerns us here and it’s certainly a priority of the department," said Cooper.
Clean water is a priority for the DEC, too, but finding money to correct the problem is getting more challenging.
"No, there's not nearly enough funding to address all the needs that currently exist in rural communities," said Bill Griffith, a facility programs manager at the DEC.
Three-quarters of all of the money in Alaska to fix water systems comes from the federal government.
But since 2004, federal funding has been dramatically reduced and is only expected to continue its downward plunge.
“The health needs associated with water and sewer improvements have actually increased as the funding has fallen off…We are losing ground at our current rate of funding," said Griffith.
There's only about $40 or $50 million a year to go around, so the state has devised a grading system to prioritize which water systems get built and repaired first.
It's divided up into two categories: a community's need and its ability to pay for the up-keep of the system.
"If a community doesn’t have any water or sewer, that's going to outweigh most every other factor…but in combination with a community that may have less need but does a really great job maintaining the system, that one may get funded first," said Griffith.
So even if residents are getting sick more often in poorer communities than others, they may not rank high on the priority list.
"The real discussion that is beginning to take place is that the federal funding has fallen off so much, some people are talking about whether or not the state should kick in some funds in addition to the required minimum state match," said Griffith.
So far, no extra state money has been put toward the issue. In the meantime, communities without water are paying the price.
Water systems are in the process of being built in about a dozen communities but it can often take a decade of funding to finish them.