Permafrost exists in many areas of Alaska. This article is about the challenges of Drinkwater supply in Alaska permafrost, and how people get their water. Read how permafrost affects Drinkwater supply.


Drinkwater Supply in Alaska Permafrost Is Not as You Know Water Supply

Have you ever thought about what it means to have drink water in an area where the ground freezes down to 1 m or more during winter or that is underlain by permafrost?


In the Arctic a Water Network Is the Exception

Because of these freezing issues, even in the Fairbanks metropolitan area, only the downtown, and university area, and the area close to Fort Wainwright are on public water networks. According to a USGS report, the city water supply, for instance, is pumped from deep wells (600 ft, 200 m) at a temperature of 34 F (1oC). It is then passed through the condensers of the downtown power plant. Finally, it is treated and fed into the city water distribution net. When they renovated the pipes a couple of years ago, I saw that these lines are more than man deep in the ground.


Neighborhood Water Houses for Drinkwater Supply in Alaska Permafrost

There are some close neighborhoods that built their own water-house with a powerful well and have a private well-insulated water distribution network that they maintain together. In rural villages, there are so-called washiterias from where people haul the water home.


Alaska lifestyle bunny boots and well water
Empty water cooler bottles waiting to be filled up at the well. Many Households use water from local wells as drink water while reserving water from the water tank, their own pump or even a distribution network for showers, and cleaning. In the background, a filled bottle and the famous white bunny boots.


Private Wells Are Expensive

Most households in the Fairbanks metropolitan area rely on private wells. This means they get their water from a water table. Most of these wells are drilled through permafrost into a depth reaching from about 40 to 200 ft (12-61 m). Wells on ridges with bedrock like, for instance the Chena Ridge, go 300 ft (100 m) or deeper below the rock. These wells are expensive to drill. Thus, people living in these areas often have no well and use a huge water tank instead.


When You Are Not on Public Water, You Are Your Own Water (Quality) Manager

When you have a private well, the water runs thru a filter to clean out coarse and fine sand. However, everything with diameters smaller than the pores of the filter including bacteria and some solutes can pass and enter the potable water lines in the house. The filter has to be exchanged every now and then. It depends on the amount of debris in the water.

When we lived out in Goldstream, we had water from the house’s own well. We were told by the manager to exchange the filter every 1-3 months. The water had some solutes that turned the white filter red after a while. Yes, there were some sand corns in the filter as well on occasions.


Haul Your Water or Go on Automatic Delivery

As mentioned above, some houses have a large water tank. The owner or tenant have to ensure that the tank is re-filled prior to running empty. There are several possibilities to do so.

You can sign up for automatic delivery. Then a water wagon will deliver new water on a regular basis. Even though these companies calculate in that you may have had a higher than average use, you may risk running out of water when you had visitors or a large party at your house. Not to mention a teenager who gets with a sudden into a love affair with the shower. 😉 When you have a steep driveway or live in the hills on a dirt road the water wagon may not be able to come under certain weather conditions.

You can also call them when your tank falls below a certain level. However, none of the people I know, who have a water tank, do this. It’s just too stressful.


one of Fairbanks water hauling places for people living in permafrost
One of the public wells. This well is open 24-7-365. It is one that looks like a typical coffee drive thru. The barriers serve to protect the construction as pickup trucks may back in to haul water. Some places look more like fuel stations.


Another possibility is to buy a huge diesel pickup truck with double tires in the back. These trucks can carry a full 500 gallon water tank. You drive to one of the wells also called water wholes. There are several in the Fairbanks Metropolitan area. Think of them like a fuel station. However, instead of fuel you tank water into that huge water tank. Some of the water wholes look more like one of these coffee shop drive thru that you can find all over Alaska, Northwestern Canada and occasionally in the Pacific Northwest. Some people complain that they have to pay for the water.


Water Is Heavy – A Friend’s Accident

Driving with this heavy load – a full 500 gallon tank weights about 4173 lb (1893 kg) – can be tricky. A girlfriend of mine who has four teenage kids has to haul water every 2 days. One day when it was below -40 F (-40oC), the tank slipped off the pickup and onto the road. At this cold air, the full tank was too much for the metal hooks that served to hold the tank on the truck. Note that metal is cold breakable. This means it cannot hold as high a load at low temperatures than at room temperature, for instance. For this reason the bridge over the Yukon is made of wood, and barriers are from wood or cement in the Interior.

She called her husband immediately as it happened close to where he works. He said to her “Oh, never mind, I will pull the tank back on the truck.” “It’s broken.” “I will repair it.” “You won’t, just come and see!” she replied being in full tears.

A colleague drove him to the location. When he arrived he saw that the entire water load had spilled onto the road and had frozen immediately upon contact. The broken tank was frozen to the steep dirt road as well and blocked one lane. Since that time, he is in charge of hauling water when temperatures go into the extremes. Then he hauls water daily, half a load at a time with a new tank.


Drilling for Wells for Drinkwater Supply in Alaska Permafrost Is Very Risky

While permafrost can be positive to get water to the surface like in the artesian wells I wrote about, permafrost can also cause problems for drilling of ground water. As soon as you drill into water under pressure it follows the same principle as artesian wells. It can erupt to the surface in a high gusher.

Such happened in 1946, for instance, when the Army Corps of Engineers hit a ground water table under pressure in about 100 ft (30 m) at the eastern end of Farmers Loop in the Fairbanks outskirts. Its pressure produced a 4 ft (1.2 m) gusher from the drill hole. The water flow became uncontrolled. Thus, the corps had to pump cement down the whole to stop the flow. They then closed the well with a huge block of concrete.

However, doing so was not the end of the story. In August 1948, the drill whole started leaking. In the following summer, the concrete block collapsed into a huge water-filled thermokarst cavity. The engineers ended up using refrigerants to reestablish a permafrost seal.


The After Story of Drilling for Drinkwater Supply in Alaska Permafrost

Unfortunately, the paths of the groundwater flow in the discontinuous permafrost in the Fairbanks metropolitan area are often unknown. There were wells in the same area that have no high pressure issues at all. Over the next 30 years or so, new wells were drilled in the area without nay problems as well. However, in the 70s, drilling in the area again produced an uncontrollable well. It flooded Farmers Loop with 2 ft of ice.

One never knows what happens when someone drills. Drilling in our neighborhood when we lived out in Goldstream gifted us a Christmas without water.


An Own Well Is Not Necessarily a Solution to All Problems

Where we lived out in Goldstream, the well had good pressure. We could well run a dishwasher and a laundry machine without having problems. However, one could not use the toilet when someone took a shower or when the dishwasher or laundry machine run at the same time. The shower would become unbearably hot whenever one flashed the toilet or one of the machines would draw water.

A colleague of mine had a well that pulled water from the Tanana River ground water table. The well had no pressure. Thus, the water had to be pumped up artificially against gravity. Consequently, running just a dishwasher or a washer alone already meant that there would be no water at the other outlets in his house. His poor wife did the dishes for the family of 7 every day by hand.

Another colleague of mine had a family reunion at her house with more than 35 people. After half of the family took their shower the well run dry for more than 4 hours.


Dealing with the Cold

The pipes of private wells are typically 2 inch in diameter. Thus, when they go a thru thick permafrost, water in the pipe can freeze easily even in July. Recall permafrost is frozen ground at temperatures below the freezing point for at least two consecutive years or more. Thus, when you are going away on vacation or only for a long weekend you have either to have a house sitter or someone come at least once a day to flash all toilets. Even in summer! Another option is to have a pump that idles.


water house that is one way of drinkwater supply in Alaska permafrost
People hauling water on Sunday at the Watering Hole, one of two public wells in College, Alaska.


Can you imagine that not knowing about these issues, I turned down a rental contract as it demanded to have someone come once a day to flash the toilets when we would be away? When I saw in the rental contract for the house in Goldstream that we had to notify the manager when we would be away for more than one day, I finally asked.


Being on City, University or Wainwright Water Doesn’t Solve the Freezing Problem

While the water in the main distribution lines is in permanent circulation, the water in the pipe to your house is not when you are away for a couple of days. Thus, this pipe may freeze in winter. Thus, you still need a house sitter, someone who comes flashing your toilets, or you need an expensive circulation pump. The problem with the circulation pump? Not to forget to start the pump in fall and to switch it off in spring (to save energy). In the end, the house sitter is the best option even when you don’t have pets that also need care.


The Water Quality

When analyzed, most of the waters from most wells would be considered undesirable for domestic use. The water is hard and rich in dissolved iron. It means you go thru a lot of soap. What am I saying? Tons of soap and it’s hard to wash it out as the water does not flow as strongly as you are used to from Europe.

Of course, this dissolved iron remains in your drying hair. It leads to a red shine on my ash brown hair. My husband has a sandy hair color that bleaches to gold blonde in the Sun in summer. The water turned his hair to a light brown in winter and gave his gold blonde hair a light strawberry blonde shimmer in summer. On the long-term, your white towels turn brownish. 🙁 It doesn’t even help to put liquid blue into the wash.

When the well is deep (more than 40 ft, 12 m) and/or goes thru permafrost it can be considered bacteria free. It is typically really cold, i.e. no ice needed to drink it. In my opinion, our water out in Goldstream tasted better than the water we had when we lived in Europe or when I lived in Albany, NY or in Boulder, CO. In other words, I loved the taste.

Sign up to get notified when a new post goes up.

Photos: N. Mölders

© 2013-2023 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Seeing the water bottles reminded me of my time in the Dominican Republic. Same service for different reasons!