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AK Natives on the Front Line: Water & Sewer Infrastructure

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

This episode explores how the unique water and sewer infrastructure operates in an Arctic environment like Utqiagvik, Alaska and how permafrost thaw and coastal erosion are affecting these systems. Alaska Natives on the Frontline is a special series of Coffee & Quaq highlighting the adaptability and resilience of the Inupiat in the face of climate change, a project funded by the Pulitzer Center Connected Coastlines program, done in partnership with journalist Jenna Kunze. We travelled up to Utqiagvik earlier this year at the peak of winter when the sun had returned back to the Arctic and interviewed residents about the various aspects of how Inupiat life has changed, but also how it has remained the same. Throughout this series we explore things like subsistence whaling practices, research, anthropological work, and more. Yves Brower is the chief of operations at the Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative Inc. (BUECI) and manages the wastewater collection, distribution, and treatment.

Yves Brower underground in the utilidoor system in Utqiagvik, AK.
Yves Brower underground next to the Utilidoor system in Utqiagvik, AK.
“Pretty much the difference between a first world country and third world country is your water system, even in Ancient Rome. If you don’t have running water and a way to get rid of your waste, you’re going to be getting sick and everything is dependent on that. It’s by far the biggest health issue in the world.” - Yves Brower

An increase in rainfall in the summer, melts more of the upper layer of permafrost which tends to shift any piping or pilings in the ground during the winter when it refreezes. Without sea ice protecting the beach during the fall storms, coastal erosion has been inching closer to flooding the pump stations located near the beach. The water and sewer infrastructure in Utqiagvik is the second most expensive utility (per person) ever made, second to the International Space Station. Protecting and maintaining these basic systems means protecting and maintaining millions of dollars invested in the health and wellbeing of the people of Utqiagvik. Health is wealth and access to clean water and proper disposal of sewage are the number one health indicators of any community.

Check out the accompanying written article on this project by Jenna Kunze here:

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