As most of the AEHA membership is doubtlessly aware, water and sewer deficiencies continue to haunt much of rural Alaska. The availability of sufficient quantities of clean water remains a primary driver of health status in many Alaskan communities. While great strides have been made in past decades to improve water/sewer infrastructure in Alaska, this has generally involved building complex water treatment and delivery systems that are capital intensive, difficult to operate, and expensive to maintain. Based on myriad factors of geology, economy and public policy, there remain communities which are unlikely to ever receive funding for capital intensive projects such as a piped water system. Simultaneously, many of the multi-million dollar water projects of the 80s and 90s are creeping past their intended lifespan. Suffice it to say, the need for predicable access to safe water in rural Alaska is on track to be a defining issue of public health in our state for decades.
Enter: greywater recycling.
The concept is that most of the used water leaving a house, is in fact, not that dirty and can be fairly easily treated and “recycled” into usable water for non-drinking purposes such as washing and bathing. (Insert: chorus of angels singing)
In an attempt to develop new strategies to address this issue, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) started a project to lab test and then pilot in-home greywater recycling systems. In March of 2015, Dump the Bucket launched in conjunction with a crowdfunding campaign. The goal of the project was to secure funding to test several off-the-shelf components and systems for future use in remote Alaskan homes.
Fast-forward to today, and construction is underway. After completely gutting an old National Guard Armory storage building, work began to retrofit the facility with the necessary infrastructure to test and filter hundreds of gallons of water per day. The scope of the initial phase of the project is to test 4 different greywater recycling systems on separate “loops.” First, technicians will mix up batches of greywater following a standardized greywater “recipe” provided by NSF. These uniform samples will be fed into each of the 4 treatment systems and the effluent will be tested.
Each of the filter systems should be able to convert this ersatz household greywater to nearly potable standards. The treated water from each of the systems will then be used as the feedstock for a new batch of laboratory-formulated greywater which will be fed back into that system. This cycle will continue iteratively until the water exiting the system no long meets the treatment standards. The hope is to be able to compare the 4 different systems and gain a sense of how many times greywater can be recycled and how much maintenance was involved along the way.
The Bethel-based greywater lab will serve an additional purpose as a learning center to develop local expertise. Staff from throughout the region will be able to learn, first hand, the nuts and bolts of greywater recycling. Local technicians will address maintenance, as well as any potential malfunctions in these systems. By developing this project in-region, YKHC hopes to build a local knowledge base that is critical for future sustainability.
After assessing performance of the 4 systems being tested, YKHC hopes to pilot the selected system(s) in homes in the region. While the technology behind greywater treatment is fairly well established, many of the challenges to real-world implementation have not been addressed. System maintenance, customer acceptance and regulatory compliance are all potential challenges for this technology. With some luck, the YKHC greywater team may be on the road to identifying and solving these problems as they provide one more tool to address the clean-water challenges faced by rural Alaska.
Contributed by Leif Albertson, UAF Cooperative Extension Service