Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the State encouraging this type of research and development on rural water and sewer systems?

Recently, federal and State of Alaska funding for Village Safe Water capital projects has declined severely while the estimated cost of addressing rural water and sewer needs has risen sharply. The current estimated deficit between available funds and needs is over $660.3 million.

Given current fiscal realities, federal funding levels for rural Alaska sanitation projects are not likely to increase and state funding has been limited to the mandated matching requirement of 25% of federal appropriations. At best, funding for rural Alaska water and sewer projects can be expected to remain at current levels, with the gap between available sanitation funding and needs continuing to grow steadily. At worst, appropriations will continue to fall, and the gap will increase even faster.

It has become increasingly clear that the current approach to rural Alaska sanitation is untenable and will result in rural residents facing increasing public health hazards associated with inadequate systems.

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What types of water and sewer systems are currently in use in rural Alaska?

Existing systems are comprised mostly of the following types:

      • Washeterias and central watering points – Treated drinking water is delivered to a single service connection and people must use their own containers to collect drinking water. This service level, which exists in about 36 villages, does not provide drinking water or wastewater removal from homes, which means that the basic health benefits of running water and flush toilets are not realized. These types of services are referred to as "unserved" systems.
      • Individual wells and septic systems – Because of soil conditions, these systems are not feasible in many parts of the State. Where they are used, in about 20 villages, drinking water wells and septic systems often do not meet the minimum separation distances for safety. Wells can become contaminated with inadequately treated sewage.
      • Water and sewer truck or trailer haul systems – This type of service, which is used in about a dozen villages, has extremely high operating costs. This often means that homeowners self-limit water use and therefore, do not realize many of the health benefits associated with household running water and sanitary sewage removal.
      • Piped water and sewer systems – This service level, prevalent in about 105 villages, provides centralized treatment, storage and piped distribution directly to homes. Piped systems are increasingly expensive to construct and maintain.

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Why can't we keep building centralized water and sewer systems in rural Alaska as we have done for the past 50 years?

Conventional, community-wide piped systems and truck haul systems are increasingly expensive to construct, maintain and replace. Many communities cannot afford the high operation and maintenance costs associated with piped or haul systems. The monthly user cost for operating these systems is often more than 5% monthly household income (MHI) in many villages. (The norm in most urban areas is 1 – 2% of MHI.) In order to provide people in rural communities with adequate water for sanitation needs and public health, a different approach to delivering these services is needed.

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What is a decentralized water and wastewater treatment approach?

Rather than pipe water from a central source to multiple homes and collect sewer from homes and pipe to a disposal site, a decentralized approach provides small scale treatment at each home. There are a number of new decentralized water and wastewater treatment, minimization, and recycling technologies that have been developed in different countries and in different climates, and for such diverse uses as the space industry, recreational vehicles, boats, and disaster response. We believe these innovative technologies hold the most promise for use in delivering affordable water and wastewater services to rural Alaska. They have great potential for use in individual homes, multi-family housing, and housing clusters.

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How many homes in Alaska lack running water and a flush toilet?

There are currently over 3,300 year-round occupied rural Alaska homes that lack running water and a flush toilet (2,300 homes in 47 "unserved" communities and 1,000 homes in served communities). Over 700 homes are served by operation-intensive haul systems. Keeping existing systems operational is a challenge for most villages, and there are approximately 4,500 rural homes that are connected to community-wide piped systems that have surpassed or are nearing the end of their design life.

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What is the potential worldwide market for decentralized technology for water and sewer service?

There is a potentially enormous demand for decentralized technology to provide indoor water and sewer service, which will function reliably under harsh conditions and which has minimal operating and capital costs. In Alaska alone, there are over 18,000 homes that would benefit immediately from such an approach. In addition, there are approximately 221,000 rural homes in the U.S. (excluding Alaska) which are occupied year round and lack complete plumbing.

In other northern countries, such as Canada, Russia and Mongolia, there are at least 1.7 million homes that could potentially benefit from the novel approaches being pursued by this project. Finally, depending on features of the technology, there are several other promising markets for which statistics are not available. These include vacation homes and recreational cabins; commercial fishing vessels and tourism boats; military and resource development camps; remote camp grounds and lodges; state and national parks; and mobile homes and recreational vehicles.

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How does lack of safe drinking water and sewage disposal affect resident's health?

Lack of in-home access to safe drinking water and sewage disposal in rural Alaska is a documented cause of high disease rates, including severe skin infections and respiratory illnesses. Several recent studies found that a lack of in-home piped water service is associated with higher incidence of respiratory tract and skin infections among rural Alaska Natives. The likely reason for this association is decreased water availability for hand washing which leads to increased transmission of disease among residents. Three studies addressing the relationship between in-home piped water service and the risk of respiratory tract, skin, and gastrointestinal infections among rural Alaska Natives are provided on this website under Resources, Health and Running Water.

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How will this project lead to new approaches to basic water and sewer services for rural Alaska?

The State of Alaska has committed funds to stimulate interest and encourage the private sector to research and develop new and cost effective ways to deliver water and sewer services in rural Alaska. In 2013, the State initiated a multi-year process to encourage the formation of teams and provide funding to develop and test one or more innovative and cost effective technologies to provide basic water and sewer services to homes in rural Alaska. These technologies are currently being developed according to the following phases:

Phase 1: Formation of Teams. In 2013, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began an international effort to solicit project teams. Engineering companies, research institutions, manufacturers, and others were encouraged to form partnerships to respond to the solicitation (RFP 2013-1800-1654 Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge). Teams’ qualifications were evaluated and scored according to the criteria included in the solicitation. Up to six of the highest ranked teams received funding to develop written proposals that would meet specific performance targets relating to constructability, health benefits, affordability, and other operational considerations. The funding available was divided in six equal parts allowing all teams to receive the same amount of funds.

Phase 2: Proposal Development and Presentation. Development of proposals took approximately eight months. Project teams presented their detailed proposals to the project Steering Committee in July 2015, both in writing and in a presentation. DEC and the Steering Committee evaluated and scored each proposal according to the performance targets established in RFP 2013-1800-1654. The three most promising proposals were selected to move on to the next phase. Teams were compensated after delivering both the written proposals and oral presentations.

Phase 3: Prototype Development and Pilot Testing. In December of 2015, DEC provided technical specifications for the construction, monitoring, and testing of prototype systems. Prototype development and testing is expected to last up to 19 months. Teams’ reports on the performance of prototypes during the testing period will be reviewed and approved. In 2017 the results of the pilot testing phase will be evaluated by DEC and the Steering Committee. Systems that best demonstrate performance target outcomes will be selected for the next phase of development. During this phase, teams will gradually be reimbursed for expenses, up to a contractually established amount equal to all teams.

Phase 4: Field System Development and Testing. Additional funding will be provided for each system selected to develop a field testing package that can be installed in rural Alaska homes. Field testing, projected to begin in 2018, will include a full year of operation. DEC will provide testing requirements for field testing. Engineering plans will be reviewed and approved by DEC and the Steering Committee. User acceptance and health outcomes will be evaluated by DEC and the Steering Committee. During the field testing phase, systems will be closely monitored and users will provide feedback on operation and use. At the conclusion of this phase, each system will be evaluated by the Steering Committee. Systems that can demonstrate sustainable, durable improvements will be refined and further deployed using available funding sources.

Phase 5: Technology Refinement and Improvement. Additional funding may be used to address inadequacies or failures identified during Phase 4 field testing and to improve durability of the systems. Field testing may be expanded to additional homes or locations.

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Who is managing this project?

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is managing this project. Additionally, a multi-agency Steering Committee consisting of experts in various fields related to water and wastewater will help guide the process and assist in selecting the teams, the proposals, and developing testing and performance criteria for prototype development and testing. Project manager contact information and a listing of the steering committee members are available on this website.

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How can I learn more about the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge?

Explore the resources on this website or send your inquiries to