USDA awards $3.6 million to improve sewage systems and landfills in interior Alaska

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The Napakiak water treatment plant and well are only 140 feet from the shore of the rapidly eroding Kuskokwim River. (Katie Basil/KYUK)

The United States Department of Agriculture is giving $3.6 million to villages in interior Alaska to help improve water supply systems and landfills.

The grants will pay for new wells and sewage treatment systems for Rampart homes and upgrades to McGrath’s water system. They will also fund engineering and environmental reports for a new solid waste facility at Ruby, new landfills at Rampart and Tanacross, and repairs to the Nenana sewage treatment system.

Julia Hnilicka, USDA rural development director for Alaska, said it’s important for federal agencies to recognize that water and waste management are part of rural health.

“With our communities in Alaska, healthcare isn’t just a hospital,” she said. “Health starts with your drinking water, disposal of waste, the ability to have telemedicine appointments along the way.”

Hnilicka grew up in Nenana, and she said shipping costs and inclement weather often delayed infrastructure repairs in rural Alaska. Now climate change is adding additional challenges as these water and waste systems age.

“A lot of the infrastructure was built around the same time, so we’re seeing that infrastructure aging at the same time,” she said. “It puts additional pressure on those systems and on those communities.”

Hnilicka said his visits to Alaskan communities this year highlighted the need for improved waste management in many villages.

“It was completely distressing, and I think about it constantly,” she said. “Young children are pushing their bikes, and right next to where they are playing you throw human waste into pretty much cardboard boxes which are then picked up. And you think not only how unsanitary it is, but also the message it sends to our children.

The USDA is partnering with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to carry out this latest group of projects in the interior. Villages throughout Alaska can request the grant program throughout the year through their local rural development office.

Early next year, Hnilicka said, the USDA plans to launch a Rural Partners Network intended to give local leaders better access to grant applications and other federal resources.

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