Trust to spend $20 million on regional water and sewer systems
By Diana Haecker
The Helmsley Charitable Trust of Colorado on Monday announced a $20 million grant to improve water, sanitation and hygiene in rural Alaska, mostly in communities of the Norton Sound/Bering Strait region.
The grant is spread out over three years and will be handled by Engineering Ministries International, a Christian nonprofit, made up of architects, engineers, surveyors with the mission to design infrastructure to help communities.
The grant aims to improve operation and maintenance of existing water and sewer utilities, to establish a Regional Utility Assistance program with Norton Sound Health Corporation to benefit the 15 communities in the Bering Strait region and to construct community and household water and sewer projects here. It also seeks to develop a pathway to water and sewer service to unserved communities and homes.
The announcement was live streamed on social media and hosted by ANTHC in Anchorage, another partner in the effort.
In the Bering Strait region, five villages - Diomede, Wales, Shishmaref, Stebbins and Teller- completely lack water and sewer infrastructure. Several more communities' sanitation systems are out of date and failing.
According to Norton Sound Health Corporation’s CEO Angie Gorn, there is a $277 million sanitation need in the Bering Strait region with 370 homes lack potable water and over 450 homes have no water or sewer. “This is a silent public health crisis, and many of these deleterious health impacts could be prevented if all residents had access to basic sanitation. This funding opportunity will help our communities repair aging systems, prevent emergencies, and make progress toward the dream of having piped water and sewer service,” said Gorn during the announcement of the grant.
Gorn said that NSHC’s board of directors has made the need for water and sewer systems a priority and the body stood up a Water and Sewer Standing Committee. “This concept of a tribal community utility assistance program - a co-op - had been under consideration for quite some time,” she said. “But this opportunity really was the catalyst for us to stop and say, 'Why aren't we doing this today?' Our communities are on board and express their gratitude for the technical assistance and the support that will allow them and empower them to maintain, manage and sustain the local utility systems.”
After learning about the potential benefits of starting a tribal co-op in our region, she said, the NSHC board pledged $500,000 annually as a subsidy to help support the water and sewer budgets for each community. “These funds will be leveraged with other funds and they will be utilized to help pay the water operators locally competitive pay and benefits. They will also be utilized to help start reserve accounts for each community. Other goals include cross training existing utility workers in the villages so there is always backup support. We are in the process of engaging other community partners in our region and those funding streams and subsidies will be used to help lower homeowner bills for water and sewer. Our tribal co-op will continue to work very closely with our ANTHC engineering team as well as with upgraded technologies that will help detect problems faster and hopefully prevent our systems from failing all together,” she said.
NSHC hired Denise Michels from DOW Engineering to be the project manager and assist in developing the tribal utility coop. Other regional partners are tribes and corporations, Kawerak and NSEDC and
Alaska’s Rasmuson Foundation has served as a matchmaker to connect Helmsley with this region. Walter Panzirer, a trustee with the Helmsley Trust, with assets worth $8 billion, was on a “grant maker trip” to Alaska in 2019, organized by the Rasmuson Foundation. “ When I came to Shishmaref it broke my heart to see that here in America people are not having access to safe water or proper sanitation. We have a program at Helmsley that focuses on health and sanitation in African countries. I never knew that this happened in the United States of America, that this was a problem in Alaska,” he said.
NSHC chairman Preston Rookok of Savoonga described the hardships that even villages with water infrastructure face. “ Our water maintenance people are having to keep village running in the harshest of weather. The coop will ensure they are not alone and have support they need,” he said.
Joanne Keyes, with the Native village of Wales described her community’s source of water. “We have no running water,” she said. The only place to take a shower or wash clothes is at a communal washeteria, built in 1974. The local health clinic and school have water, but in their homes, there are no flush toilets or showers. “We have to go to washeteria in inclement weather. Our kids have to go there, too, in blizzard conditions and all. Shishmaref has the same problem, I feel it’s very important that people start listening to our needs and problems and how we can fix things,” she said.
NSHC’s Gorn said that her organization looks forward “to sitting down at the table and mapping out what the paths to service looks like for those communities and really strategizing how we’re going to accomplish that goal.”
“ I just want to thank you for this gift,” she said. “It really is the springboard that helped align everyone so that we could move forward toward this vision together."