News Feature | October 29, 2013

Decentralized Water Systems A Possibility In Alaska

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,


Alaska is seeking new ideas for its sewer and water system. One option under serious consideration is decentralized systems that treat water at individual households. 

According to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, over 6,000 rural Alaska homes "lack running water and a flush toilet. Many more depend on aging and deteriorating piped and haul systems."

State funding for water projects is dwindling and the current system is expensive.

"Agencies have typically funded conventional, community-wide piped and truck haul systems. Although these systems work, they are expensive to construct and many communities cannot afford their high operational costs," according to the state.

Looking for alternatives, the department recently launched the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge, an effort "to bring together experts to design a functional and affordable decentralized system," Alaska Public Media reported

The report explained what a decentralized system looks like: "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."

That model might be a useful system for Alaska, according to Bill Griffith, a project manager with the State of Alaska Division of Water.

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

But officials want assurance the system will not break down.

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

Millions of dollars have been devoted to the contest. "If more funding comes in, then in 2014 and 2015, three teams will develop prototypes and test them in a lab setting," the report said.

Decentralized systems are already widely used in the U.S. "Nearly one in four households in the United States depends on an individual septic system (also referred to as an onsite system) or small community cluster system to treat their wastewater," the EPA says

These systems sometimes come with headaches. "An estimated 10 to 20 percent of these systems malfunction each year, causing pollution to the environment and creating a risk to public health," the EPA said. 

An editorial in the Alaska Dispatch admired the state's approach to its infrastructure problems.

"It isn’t typical for bureaucrats to throw up their hands, to some degree, and say, 'We just don’t know the answer. Anyone else want to take a stab at this one?'" the piece said. "Humility in the face of a challenge of this magnitude is admirable, because it’s obvious that we don’t, in fact, have all the answers."

To read more on Water Online about how tight budgets are impacting the water sector, click here

Image credit: "One of the few log cabins in Anchorage, Alaska, USA, in the snow and sun, with a little fog, Christmas," © 2008 Wonderlane, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: