State Seeks to Build Decentralized Water and Sewer

by Ben Matheson on October 23, 2013

Six-thousand homes in Alaska are not connected to a central water and sewer system. And the state may want to keep it that way. The Department of Environmental Conservation has spent decades working with communities to build water and sewer system. They’re expensive, complicated, and the statewide funding has dropped by half over the past decade, according to Bill Griffith, a project manager with the agency. That could spell trouble for the 40 communities with no centralized service and for dozens of towns with existing water and sewer.

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“Those systems are getting old, they’re falling apart, they may not meet current regulations, they’re undersized, there’s a lot of problems with existing systems,” said Griffith. “It’s also very expensive to try to upgrade and keep those systems running.”

The state thinks it can meet the needs by developing decentralized systems. To kickstart that, the state is launching the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge to bring together experts to design a functional and affordable decentralized system. Instead of a huge community sewage lagoon and treatment plant, each household would be capable in some way of separating waste streams and recycling water.

“There’s ways that you may be able to treat that wastewater, of either kind, on site and dispose of it on site, depending on where you and what kind of environment you’re in. And finally, if you’re able to reduce the amount of waste water that has to be removed from the house, it may become affordable to haul it away,” said Griffith.

Griffith says that rural Alaska presents a unique challenge with its climate and remote locations, but he notes that there is existing technology that can do the job.

“We want to see all of it put together for a whole household system. A lot of the things we’ve see that we think are promising we just haven’t seen them combined with other technologies to create that household system,” said Griffith.

The state is also looking for teams with engineering experience as well as expertise from sociologists and health scientists. There’s been interest from teams as far away as the Philippines and Bangladesh. Up to six teams will receive money to write proposals and present them to the project committee. The Alaska legislature set aside a million dollars for the project. If more funding comes in, then in 2014 and 2015, three teams would develop prototypes and test them in a lab setting.

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