Chevak: A success story in Tribal utility partnershipJanuary 29, 2021
When Chevak joined the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC) in 2004, the program was in its infancy. Chevak, and a handful of other communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, recognized the advantages of working together to manage, operate and maintain their water and sewer systems. For Chevak, the partnership with ARUC has resulted in nearly 50 percent reductions in water and sewer costs for residents, a robust reserve account and a more efficient and self-sustaining system.
Each ARUC community operates their water and sewer systems as a standalone nonprofit business. In 2013, rising energy costs put community leaders into action as they contacted the Consortium’s Rural Energy Program for technical assistance to develop new ways to save on system operations and maintenance. With a combination of an energy audit, energy efficiency upgrades such as high-efficiency boilers, new vacuum sewer pumps, operator training, and a wind-to-heat energy project, the community began to see substantial yearly savings and a healthy, growing reserve fund.
Chevak’s water treatment plant went from more than $200,000 in debt to having over $500,000 in reserves in 2020. These reserves fund needed equipment, overages in labor, and emergencies.
With a portion of the reserve savings, city leadership created an administrative position dedicated to assisting water plant operators with their daily administrative tasks. The position brought new employment to the community and also helped increase collections from 88% to 97% in just eight months. The water plant operators now focus on maintenance of the facilities, rather than customer relations and the fee collections process.
John Atchak, a water plant operator, appreciates having more time for the hands-on side of the job.
“The administrative position has freed and allowed me to go to the field more often,” Atchak said. He now has more time to work on seasonal summer projects and make repairs and improvements to the system.
City Mayor Richard Tuluk has witnessed Chevak’s partnership with ARUC since the beginning. The extra water plant staff, just one benefit of its financial security, would not be possible without the shared vision for water security and a healthy community.
“Our biggest investment is the people in our community that work and maintain our water and sewer systems: our water plant and sewer operators.” Tuluk said. “They are the backbone in our communities that make sure our facilities are providing the water and sewer services.”
Energy costs are the second-highest expense for cold-climate water and wastewater facilities. In 2018, city leaders, looking for even more ways to save, collaborated with ANTHC’s Rural Energy Program on a heat recovery project. Where the community had previously used an average of 15,000 gallons of fuel per year, the heat recovery system saves an estimated 12,500 gallons annually. Customer water rates dropped from $165 a month to just $85 a month and are some of the lowest among the ARUC communities.
“Chevak has been an amazing success regarding financial stability due to implemented energy projects and utility collections,” said Francine Moreno, ANTHC Manager of Utility Operations.
Communities interested in ARUC’s program can find information on our website here.