Stony River’s Battle to Get Running Water

Story by – Ryan Autenrieth, YKHC Office of Environmental Health & Engineering. With contributions from Mary Willis, President of the Stony River Traditional Council. Edited by Emily Autenrieth, MA.

May 15, 2014 - 10 minutes read
Stony River view
Coming into Stony River.

50 Years of Self-Determination

by Ryan Autenrieth, YKHC Office of Environmental Health & Engineering

Flying 500 feet above the ground preparing to land, I peered down to see the three square miles of land that make up the small island where Stony River is located near the confluence of the Kuskokwim River and the mouth of Stony River.

The airport landing strip and houses are confined to the northern part of the island. Stony River has a population of forty, so the trees surrounding the houses drastically outnumber the people that live in them. Everything zoomed into focus as the pilot choked the engine and pulled back on the yoke and the tires smoothly contacted the ground.

I was excited to return to Stony River for my third trip since 2011. As a field Environmental Health Officer at YKHC, I am an environmental health technical advisor for 16 Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) communities, including Stony River, and I specialize in water and sewer systems. This was the first time that I had visited Stony River and hadn’t seen Rubbermaid trash cans of water being hauled. Stony River has been battling for over fifty years to provide the most fundamental of services to their residents: the running water and flush toilets that most of us take for granted.

If you spend any time in Stony River, the first thing you’ll notice is that everyone is busy. President of the Traditional Council Mary Willis is putting together tax documents, council members are working on the exterior of the council building, and residents are making vital repairs to their snowmachines and houses. The sight of valuable Marten fur around town and the number of people who have gone hunting highlight the importance of subsistence. Subsistence takes on new meaning in a community with only a handful of jobs and where the only store is run by six Gusty Michael School students to help fund their public education. These young Stony River students refuse to give up on having their education provided in their home community, just as the Stony River Traditional Council and residents refuse to give up on providing water and sewer to everyone that wants it.

This may not sound that different than other remote YK Delta communities, but the small, shrinking population combined with the one-size-fits-all approach in the region to water and sewer has proved to be especially difficult for Stony River. The history of water and sewer in Stony River over the past 50 years is full of challenges and failures, but also of perseverance, unity and strength. In the early 1960s, Alaska Native families established permanent residency in Stony River. Five households put in their own hand pump wells prior to 1970, but those wells were prone to freezing in the winter and many people still had to haul water from the river. At the time, human waste was managed through the use of outhouses or honeybuckets, an approach that continued for many years. Mary Willis said that in the 1970s, “the idea of running water in Stony River just seemed like a dream.” Stony River residents are self-sufficient and resourceful, and over time more families learned to dig their own hand pump wells and build outhouses.

Hand pump wells were eventually put in most of the households and, by 1985, money was invested to increase well depth and to install electric jet pumps. Despite these efforts, most of the community’s homes did not have indoor plumbing, and centralized water systems were believed to be the best solution for many remote Alaska Native Villages at the time. The Village of Stony River requested aid from the Indian Health Service (IHS) to construct sanitation facilities. The IHS and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made an investment to build a water treatment plant and washeteria that would be connected to eight HUD houses, serve as a central location for people to haul water, and provide basic laundry services. The water plant/washeteria facility was open for just eight years before being shut down in 1999, when only three of the eight original houses were receiving piped water. At that point, operating costs were not sustainable with only three customers and important elements of the system were failing.

As the community dealt with aging residential wells, no indoor plumbing in most houses, and inadequate sewage disposal facilities, the idea to repair and reopen the water plant and washeteria reemerged several years after its closure. In 2005, repairs were completed and the facility was working again. The significant cost to run the water plant and washeteria, coupled with problems with the system, forced Stony River to close the facility for the second time in under eight years. A centralized water system was not practical and was not meeting the needs of the community.

By this point, approximately $1 million had been spent to provide Stony River with water and sewer, but the return on investment was minimal. Residents still lived without water and sewer services and the community was running out of options. The community decided that they’d had enough with centralized water systems and feasibility studies. Individual wells with indoor plumbing and septic systems became their focus. Determined to not be discouraged by the repeated failures of the centralized water plant/washeteria, Stony River’s council spent five years trying to get funding to provide water and sewer to their community as a basic right.

Finally, in 2012, the community received a modest legislative appropriation of $192,000 from the State of Alaska to provide the majority of the capital they needed for the project. The Village of Stony River had to contribute additional funds to make the water and sewer project possible, but they completed the whole project at a fraction of the estimated cost. The Village of Stony River managed the project and local residents provided the sweat equity needed to put in ten wells and four septic systems for the community.

As Stony River resident David Bobby walked around town describing the wells, many of which he had personally worked on, he shared his impressive amount of knowledge on installation and maintenance that he had learned from his family and elders, who had personally hand-drilled wells.

My time with the exceptionally friendly and humble residents of Stony River had gone by too quickly. The plane started up with a grumble, and then roared to a steady acceleration for takeoff. As I looked back out the window, I reflected on the strength and self-determination I witnessed here. Stony River has many challenges ahead and will have to keep fighting for basic services that most people take for granted, but ultimately, theirs is a story of hope.

Stony River’s perseverance, unity, and strength make the whole community an inspiration to all of us to accomplish the impossible and to keep trying no matter how many times we have tried before. As Mary Willis said, “It takes a lot of hard work, but if we can do it, then other communities like us can do it too.” I am grateful to the wonderful people of Stony River for welcoming me into their community and allowing me to share their story.

Story by Ryan Autenrieth, YKHC Office of Environmental Health & Engineering. With contributions from Mary Willis, President of the Stony River Traditional Council. Edited by Emily Autenrieth, MA