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Unalakleet Works to Find Pipe Break as Water Tank Drains

Rick Casillo mushing out of Unalakleet.
Rick Casillo mushing out of Unalakleet. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

(story updated Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018)

The City of Unalakleet is still searching for the location of a water pipe leak that has caused the community’s water tank to rapidly deplete.

According to City Manager Davida Hanson, nearly 240,000 gallons of water have been lost since Friday. The water is flowing out of the leak faster than it’s coming in from the water supply, Powers Creek.

Some homes can’t flush toilets or get water to the second floor, because workers are adjusting water pressure to help find the leak. A few are without water entirely.

Utility workers determined the leak was within the FAA loop Monday afternoon and isolated that section. Hanson says they usually listen to the water flow to find out where a leak is, but windy conditions made that difficult. She says the wind subsided on Tuesday, so more progress could be made.

The city’s remote maintenance worker is also on the way to assist with the isolation and repair, but isn’t expected to arrive until Thursday or Friday. A sound-wave detector is also being flown in from Fairbanks.

Hanson says the city hasn’t been able to fill its tank above 11 feet this winter. That could have been because of a slow leak that’s now expanded. Last Friday, the water level began dropping rapidly. It’s now at about 5-and-a-quarter feet. If the level falls below 5 feet, the city will likely issue a boil water notice.

Hanson says this break is just one indication of a larger problem.

“I can’t say when the water and sewer lines were put in, but they’re failing.”

She says there are pipes that simply crumble when they’re excavated after a leak, requiring the city to replace the whole pipe.

The City of Unalakleet would like to set up a well farm, Hanson says, which would be more reliable than piping it in from the creek. But the first priority is replacing the sewage and water distribution system. And that’s a serious task with a big price tag.

“With more rural communities in Alaska, there’s failing water and sewer lines and there’s just no monies out there to help us try and fix them.”

Other communities in Western Alaska dealing with water issues include Gambell, which had a damaged sewer main that went unfixed for several months in the fall. Currently, St. Michael is working on a complete overhaul of its water and sewer system, with partial funding coming from Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation.

An overhaul in Unalakleet will have to wait. For now, Hanson says since the isolated loop is a shorter one, she hopes the leak will be found soon. The city is continuing to ask residents to limit their water use as much as possible.

Image at top: file photo: a winter view of Unalakleet during last year’s Iditarod. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.)

Correction: an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Unalakleet City Manager Davida Hanson. The spelling has been corrected.

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