The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill brings key water and sanitation improvements to rural Alaska

It includes $230 million for an EPA water grant program in Alaska, as well as money for climate resilience — some of which is designated for community relocation.

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A 2011 photo shows residents of Pitkas Point, Alaska wearing breathing apparatus to transfer human waste to a collection bucket, which will then transport the untreated waste to a sewage lagoon. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Alaska Native villages that lack piped water service and currently rely on plastic-bag-lined “honey buckets” for toilets are set to benefit from the newly passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The bill, which won final passage in the U.S. House late Friday, includes $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service’s sanitation construction program. The money is to be disbursed over five years and address capital needs in rural Alaska — estimated to cost nearly $2 billion — and on tribal lands in the Lower 48.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was one of the 10 members of a bipartisan Senate group that crafted the bill and won passage in that body in August, celebrated the House action that will send the measure to the White House for President Biden’s signature.

“This bipartisan infrastructure bill is one of the most consequential legislative efforts I have worked on in my Senate career,” Murkowski said in a statement. “The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act recognizes that Alaska is decades behind in having the basic infrastructure which many states in the Lower 48 take for granted.”

The need for water and sanitation improvement in rural Alaska has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Alaska Natives. Hospitalization and death rates for Alaska’s Indigenous people have been significantly higher than the state average, as detailed in the most recent monthly report issued by the Alaska Division of Public Health’s epidemiology section.

From January 2020 to September 2021, a period covering most of the pandemic, Alaska Natives were hospitalized at a rate more than 50 percent higher than Alaskans as a whole, according to the report. During that 19-month period, Alaska natives accounted for 29 percent of the Alaska COVID-19 deaths, even though they make up 16 percent of the population, according to the report. In contrast, white Alaskans accounted for 48.5 percent of the COVID-19 deaths but 65 percent of the population, according to the report.

[How COVID is helping spur big investment in Alaska water and sanitation services]

The infrastructure bill includes Alaska water and sanitation improvements to go well beyond the more than 30 villages currently classified as unserved and where human waste is collected in the five-gallon containers known as “honey buckets.” Beyond those communities, there are many more – ranging from small villages to hub areas — that have some service but struggle with quality problems or problems with operations and maintenance.

To help those communities, the bill includes $230 million for the Environment Protection Agency’s Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program.

The program, created in 1996 specifically to address water and sanitation problems in Alaska, provides funding to help communities build or improve their systems and operate and maintain them safely. There are 245 Alaska communities eligible for grants from the program, according to Murkowski. From fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2021, the program provided $188.2 million for 105 projects around the state. That includes recent and ongoing projects providing the first-ever water service to Eek, a Yup’ik village in western Alaska, Shageluk, an Athabascan village on the Innoko River, a tributary of the Yukon River, and Buckland, an Inupiat village in northwestern Alaska, along with several projects to improve existing service in villages.

Qualifying for grants has required a 50 percent match up to now, with at least 25 percent of project funding required to come from the state. Many villages lack the technical expertise to operate and maintain systems or the financial wherewithal to qualify for grants.

But with the money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the EPA program will now provide 75 percent of project funding, according to a legislative breakdown from Murkowski’s office.

The infrastructure bill has several other provisions aimed specifically at rural Alaska, according to that legislative breakdown.

It includes $75 million for the Denali Commission, a grant-distributing organization focused on rural Alaska infrastructure needs. The commission, which was nearly eliminated during the Trump administration, has a variety of programs, including one focused specifically on sanitation improvements.

The infrastructure bill also provides $216 million for tribal climate resilience programs, $130 million of which is for community relocation, a critical issue in Alaska, where several communities are planning full or partial relocations because of accelerated coastal erosion and permafrost thaw.

Rural Alaska provisions in the infrastructure bill go beyond water and sanitation improvements.

Among the bill’s many ports and harbors provisions, for example, there is $250 million for remote and subsistence harbors. Included in the bill’s provisions to improve the nation’s energy grid is $1 billion for rural and remote areas, and among the provisions to improve telecommunications is $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program I

While most lawmakers supporting the bill were Democrats, it won votes from all three of Alaska’s all-Republican Congressional delegation. Rep. Don Young, the state’s lone House member, released a celebratory statement.

“Alaska is unlike any other state in the union. Our unique, often harsh terrain means we have very different infrastructure needs than the Lower 48. I am very pleased by the historic investments this legislation makes in Alaska,” the statement said.

Young’s supportive role won him some kudos from Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff.

Klain, on Twitter, said he was grateful to Young “for his early encouragement and advice on putting together the bipartisan infrastructure bill” and that Young was one of the president’s “earliest consultations when this process was getting started.”

The newly passed infrastructure bill is separate from the Build Back Better infrastructure bill, which is crafted as a budget reconciliation legislation. That bill includes a focus on social services. It does not have support from Murkowski or the others in the Alaska delegation. One provision of that bill would revoke the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil-development program.

Support for this reporting came from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.