Alaska Rural Utilities Cooperative Improves Public Health and Local Economies in Alaska Villages

Building with signIn 2007, 64 Alaska Native communities were without running water or flush toilets. To address this problem, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) implemented a three-year Social and Economic Development Strategies ANA project to create the Alaska Rural Utilities Cooperative (ARUC), a statewide network of local water and sewer utilities.

The vision for the project, developed in cooperation with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, involved utilizing participatory processes to recruit villages, implementing efficient, effective billing programs in each village, and hiring local residents as full-time ANTHC water and sewer system operators.

After studying 60 villages already served through ANTHC public health programs, the ANTHC team reached out to village leaders to assess the readiness of each community for the initiative. Next, they traveled to interested communities, met with tribal leaders, conducted in-depth analyses of village sewer and water facilities, explained the ARUC concept to village residents, answered their questions and concerns, and secured memoranda of agreement (MOAs) from 23 village leaders to participate in the cooperative.

In the 23 participating villages, the ANTHC team oriented, trained, and hired residents as water and sewer operators and assistants, creating 104 new jobs. Utilizing the new staff members in each village, the cooperative took over day-to-day operation of village water and sewer systems, providing reliable water and sanitation service for 7,461 people in 1,988 households, and generating nearly $4 million in revenue to sustain the systems. ARUC services included system maintenance and repair; collecting user fees; paying operators; paying for fuel, electricity, parts, and supplies; system monitoring; and ensuring state and federal regulatory requirements were met.

Village leaders have already observed improvements in public health, and expect to see lower infant mortality rates, less illness and death from infectious disease, and higher life expectancies in their communities. ARUC member village councils are now planning for new economic development opportunities, including fish hatcheries, hunting and fishing lodges, cultural and eco-tourism, oil contracts, and construction. Beyond the 23 villages joining ARUC during the project, 34 additional villages became part of the ARUC’s billing assistance program, with hopes of joining the cooperative in the near future.