A few feet away from the earthen dam that pens the reservoir’s water is a small concrete building. Open the steel doors of that building, and the reservoir’s serenity is broken by an enormous din.
This small building is the reservoir’s pump house, and it is falling apart.
On Thursday, the Kodiak City Council voted unanimously to request $5.7 million from the Alaska Legislature to repair the pump house and replace the pumps within. Without that money, the water system that supplies Kodiak residents and the city’s fishing industry is in danger.
The need for a new pumping system has been apparent for years. In September 2010, as public works employees tried to start up one of three pumps to meet increased demand, the pump’s motor caught fire. The next day, another pump’s starter failed, forcing the city to use an emergency diesel pump to meet the needs of a pollock processing season.
A few weeks after those incidents, the city council voted to begin planning a replacement pump house. The federal requirement to build a UV water treatment facility diverted city effort, however, and only with the completion of that facility has the city been able to devote its full attention to pump house work.
In a Friday tour, public works director Mark Kozak showed the problems with the current pump house, which was built in 1972. Large cracks run the length of the building where prefabricated concrete panels were brought together. Forty years of Kodiak winters have forced the panels apart, and hordes of bats have nested in the building that supplies Kodiak’s drinking water.
“I don’t know why the bats have taken a liking to this place,” Kozak said, “but they’ve been here for years.”
In addition to the building’s flaws, there are problems with the pumps themselves. Each of the three primary pumps bears the nameplate “De Laval.” That company was founded by a contemporary of Thomas Edison but no longer makes water pumps. Instead, it only supplies the dairy industry.
The age of Kodiak’s pumps is a mystery. “I have heard stories that they came off fire tugboats, but I don't know for sure,” Kozak said.
Pictures from a 1954 De Laval catalog show similar pumps being used in Pennsylvania water works.
Parts are hard to come by and must be individually machined to specifications. “You can’t just call and order parts off the shelf,” Kozak said.
And then there’s the staffing issue. “Every day, seven days a week, someone has to come out to the pump house,” he said.
Modern pump houses are automated; pumps turn on and off automatically as demand rises and falls. Kodiak’s pumps must be turned on and off by hand.
In the middle of winter, when the road to Monashka Reservoir and White Sands Beach is covered in snow and ice, that can be a treacherous trip.
In the most memorable trip, “It literally took us 8 hours to get here from town to the front gate with a grader going through the snow,” Kozak said.
If the power goes out, the problem becomes even worse — the pump house’s backup diesel system must also be operated manually, and the operator must stay on station as long as the diesel is running.
With the cost of employment rising, that means big expenses for the city of Kodiak. New pumps also would use less electricity, Kozak said, leading to lower costs in that area as well.
For now, the future of the project rests with the Alaska Legislature. Kodiak’s water system is funded by its users, with fees going directly to the cost of upkeep. If the Legislature fails to pay for the project, the city will apply for money under a state matching grant program.
That program entails some cost to the city, however, and is considered less attractive.
Each dollar the city spends on the project is an additional cost that must be passed to ratepayers, and unlike parks, water is not something Kodiak can live without.
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at email@example.com.