Instead of roads, Port Alexander has boardwalks, like this one pictured in August, 2019. That makes getting material to the water tank even more complicated. (KCAW Photo/Meiers)

Without at least $1 million in upgrades, the aging water system in Port Alexander risks failure — perhaps catastrophically. The Baranof Island community has applied for a state grant to make the necessary repairs, and hopes to find other funding to complete the project before its water tank topples.

The 125,000 gallon tank and the foundation that supports it are more than thirty years old and have reached the end of their useful lifespans. Mayor Debra Gifford says the system is at “imminent” risk of failing. And the tank is on a hillside outside of town, so if the foundation does give out, it won’t do so quietly.

“And it’s kinda perched on a pretty steep spot so if it were to fail it would tumble down. And then of course it would take out some of the pipe,” she said.

Replacing the tank and foundation will cost around $1.1 million. 

Gifford recently submitted an application to the state Department of Commerce for a Community Development Block Grant to cover $850,000. The grants are federally-funded but administered at the state level. 

The town’s water tank has reached the end of its useful lifespan. (Courtesy/Gifford)

Port Alexander already received some funding through the same program to cover design, engineering, and logistics planning, all of which are made more complicated by the town’s location 61 air miles southeast of Sitka,  and by a lack of roads. 

“And you have to understand, we live in a very remote, isolated area,” Gifford said. “We don’t have roads to this tank, we don’t even have roads, we have boardwalks. And so it would require helicopter lifts which, you know, are quite expensive.”    

Even if the new grant does come through, the town’s 52 year-round residents will still need to pull together a couple hundred thousand dollars from other sources to make up the difference.

Gifford expects the work won’t take place until the summer of 2021. In the meantime, the town has reduced the amount of water in the tank to ease the burden on the foundation. Other than that, all they can really do is hope for the best. 

“So far things seem okay,” she said. “But, you know, whoever knows if there’s an earthquake or something like that, that might affect it a lot greater than it would if it were in good condition.”  

If the foundation buckles before it can be replaced, the town would have to rely on a more expensive backup plan: Pumping water out of a nearby muskeg lake. Gifford expects to hear back about the block grant early next year.