Bill to expand definition of ‘village’ qualifying for water funds passes Alaska House

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Downtown Talkeetna is blanketed by snow on March 10. A bill that the Alaska House narrowly passed would classify Talkeetna as a village eligible for funding under the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Village Safe Water program. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

What in Alaska counts as a village? When it comes to state money for drinking water improvements, the definition can be fraught.

In a close vote, the Alaska House on Wednesday passed a bill that would add six road-system communities to the list of rural communities that qualify for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Village Safe Water program.

Technically, the measure, House Bill 114, would expand the definition of “village” as used by the program, to include communities of up to 1,500 people from the current 1,000 threshold. It would also allow unincorporated census-designated places to be added to the list of eligible villages.

If it wins final passage in the Senate, the measure would expand the list of program-eligible villages to include Talkeetna, Sutton-Alpine and Buffalo Soapstone in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Funny River on the Kenai Peninsula, Tok in the Interior and Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope.

The bill’s consideration comes at a time when abundant federal money, much of it made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, is flowing into Alaska for rural water and sanitation upgrades. Much of that funding comes to the Village Safe Water program through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, said the Village Safe Water program has done much over the years to improve Alaskans’ lives and that more Alaskans should have access to its benefits.

The program “stands as a beacon for our commitment to public health and environmental stewardship providing essential aid to upgrade sanitation and water facilities in rural areas,” McCabe said in floor debate.

Four years after the last federal census, the Village Safe Water program is now due for a revision in the way qualifying villages are defined, McCabe said. The last such revision was in 2011, after the 2010 Census, he noted.

The Talkeetna spur road leading into community's downtown district is seen on March 9, 2024, with Denali and other Alaska Range mountains in the backdrop. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The Talkeetna spur road leading into the community’s downtown district is seen on March 9, 2024, with Denali and other Alaska Range mountains in the backdrop. Talkeetna’s position on the road system a couple of hours’ drive away from Anchorage raises questions about efforts to classify the Matanuska-Susitna Borough community as a village. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The 22-18 vote followed floor debate that was emotional at times.

Opponents said they worried that adding the six road-accessible communities to the village list would put them in competition for funds with truly needy and remote rural communities.

“There are a number of communities that are struggling – struggling to get basic water infrastructure, that don’t have access to the road system, that don’t have the ability to take an hour and half drive to Fred Meyer’s, that have to deal with a number of insanely high grocery prices, that have to deal with realities that are completely departed  from the rest of the state,” said Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel. His rural district encompasses Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages that are poverty-stricken, remote and, in many cases, lacking basic water and sanitation services.

Rep. Alyce Galvin, D-Anchorage, recounted a visit she made to a Tanana Chiefs Conference event where she learned about the dire water and sanitation needs in remote Indigenous communities in Alaska’s Interior. Solutions for those villages could be delayed if new communities compete for program funds, she said.

“We’re looking at making a change that will have a deep effect on many Alaskans who have been waiting a long time for their share of the pie. What I mean by that is, there are a finite number of dollars going to water and sewer projects,” she said. In contrast to the truly rural areas, which are remote, challenged by environmental conditions and high costs, for communities closer to urban areas, “there are boroughs, there are municipalities, there are ways we can put together money,” she said.

Rep. Ashey Carrick, D-Fairbanks, said the six communities that would be added include some connected to very large cities. Talkeetna, for example, is an hour’s drive north of the fastest-growing urban communities and less than two hours’ drive from Anchorage, she said.

“And then there’s Prudhoe Bay. I almost have to laugh at that one because I’m not quite sure how an industrial population technically connected by a haul road used to haul a huge variety of goods and services up the road is technically a village,” she said.

Others criticism focused on what opponents said was a lack of vetting by the public and by rural-serving organizations. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, named the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Federation of Natives as organizations that needed to be better consulted.

“If this measure doesn’t make it through this year – and I have my doubts – let’s have this conversation. Let’s do it right. Let’s bring everybody to the table,” he said.

Bill supporters, however, said an expansion of eligibility for the Village Safe Water program is justified and that water and sanitation needs extend beyond rigid geographic boundaries or classifications.

Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok/Northway, reeled off a list of villages in his sprawling Interior district that are on the road system but are officially classified as villages and are facing some of the same water and sewer problems that exist off the road system: Northway, Tetlin, Tanacross, Dot Lake, Eagle, Chitina, Tazlina, Copper Center, Gulkana, Mentasta, Gakona, Minto, Circle and Tanana. And he added in larger communities with significant Native populations: Kenny Lake, Nenana, Manley, Central and his hometown of Tok. Tok would be among the six communities added to the list of qualified villages.

The sticker-covered exterior of the Prudhoe Bay General Store is seen on Aug. 22, 2018. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The sticker-covered exterior of the Prudhoe Bay General Store is seen on Aug. 22, 2018. Under a bill that passed the state House, Prudhoe Bay would be classified as a village qualified to receive state Village Safe Water funds. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

He grew up in Northway, he noted, and the first house he bought was a cabin without running water. “I had two kids, and I hauled water, and we used an outhouse. So I know how that feels,” he said.

Rep. Frank Tomaszewski, R-Fairbanks, another bill supporter, said that even in Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city, there are hundreds and possibly thousands of people who live in “dry cabins,” homes without running water.

House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, recounted 1990s-era pledges of former Gov. Tony Knowles to “put the honey bucket in the museum,” a slogan that the Democratic governor used to refer to retiring the plastic-bag-lined buckets that rural residents sometimes use as toilets.

“Over the last 30 years we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and untold hours of labor to do that, using federal money, using state money, using state labor, to the undisputed benefit of Alaskans,” he said. There has been “tremendous progress” over the years through the Village Safe Water program, he said. “This measure, I believe, seeks to extend the benefit of that program simply to more Alaskans,” he said.

McCabe, in his wrap-up pitch for the bill, pointed out that villages getting grants through the state program must pass through a qualification test that assigns scores.

And he defended the idea of Village Safe Water grants for Talkeetna, a community about 60 miles up the highway from his hometown of Big Lake.

“People are stopping alongside the road on the way to Talkeetna to their dry cabin in the middle of the winter in the dark, when it’s icy and cold, to fill up their water jugs,” he said. “I’m wondering why Talkeetna can’t have some part of the pie that we talked about, that the representative from Anchorage talked about.”

The bill is now on track to be considered by the Senate, though it may get a reconsideration vote in the House.