A remote Alaska Native village where only half the homes have indoor plumbing is among rural communities nationwide that will receive upgrades to water and wastewater systems with $352 million in grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is scheduled to announce the funding Thursday at a convention of Alaska Natives in Anchorage.
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In a telephone interview Tuesday, Vilsack told The Associated Press that ultimately, the future goal is to bring the entire nation into the modern world.
"It's really designed to make sure people live in communities and in areas that provide the basic protections and the guarantee of basic protections that we all, as Americans, ought to have," he said. "It's an adequate supply of quality water. It's the ability to treat sewage properly so that it doesn't to harm or damage to the environment."
Among other awards for water system improvements include a $6 million loan and $3.7 million grant to Clay County Water Authority in Alabama; a $900,000 loan and $3.5 grant for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico; an $11 million loan and a $3 million grant to Port Townsend, Washington; and a $1.2 million loan and $3.6 million grant to Hartland, Maine.
Another big recipient is Edgerton, Wisconsin, which is receiving a $2.5 million grant and a $7.8 million loan to upgrade its aging water treatment system.
In this round of funding, more than $12.1 million is targeted for infrastructure improvements in rural Alaska communities.
The western Alaska village of Akiachak is receiving a $5 million grant that will go toward construction of sewer mains and other parts of a core system that can be hooked up later to 100 houses in the community still without indoor plumbing. Another 100 homes in the Yup'ik Eskimo community of 675 received the plumbing in an earlier project.
Phillip Peter, chairman of the village tribal council, lives in one of the homes without plumbing. The 63-year-old has lived in the village most of his life and said everyday conditions will hugely improve after remaining homes have indoor plumbing. These days, he collects river or pond water. In the winter, that means chipping away at the ice and carrying it home to melt.
Like other residents without plumbing, his home relies on the honey bucket system — large buckets that serve as toilets. His grandchildren are called upon to haul away the human waste and dump it in village receptacles, which sometimes leak when overfull, Peter said Wednesday during an interview in Anchorage, where he and other Akiachak representatives traveled to attend the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention this week.
He looks forward to the day when his home will have what most Americans take for granted.
"It's going to be real different," Peter said. "The whole community will be really happy."
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is working with the village on the project. Consortium project management director David Beveridge said the community is working on securing a required 25 percent matching grant from the state. The hope is to begin construction in 2016.
He said once the water and wastewater system is completed, homes without plumbing will get the hookups with future funding. Having the entire system in place will be huge for the community, Beveridge said. Studies have shown that lack of plumbing in homes poses a far greater risk for skin and respiratory infections than homes with plumbing, he said.
"Just the public health aspect of having running water dramatically improves the quality of life for people," Beveridge said.
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