Wednesday, 12 October 2011 14:46

Infrastructure Strategy: Rural Health Clinic, Tundra/Taiga Ecoregion

Photo Credit: Aqvaluq Photography

Visit the Overview blog post for an introduction to the Building Public Health Blog Library of Strategies.

Visit the Reference section below for the primary source of data incorporated into this blog post.

Context

The context for this proposed design strategy is a remote community in Northeast Alaska with a population of roughly 500 residents from the Inupiat tribe. The economy relies mainly on subsistence activities (i.e., hunting, gathering, and fishing). The modern community was founded in 1939 as part of the Indian Reorganization Act; however, residents relocate to temporary camps closer to the coast during the summer months.

How Resilient Is The Surrounding Infrastructure?

Roads & Transit
    • Transportation routes to and from the community rely on water: ice in the winter and river navigation in the summer. Both routes are being disrupted via shorter sea and river ice in the winter and low water levels in the summer.

    • Barge service is not possible due to low water levels.

    • Airplane cargo transport is expensive.

Benefits & Risks – The relative remoteness of the village enables residents to pursue a subsistence economy with minimal encroachment from other economic activities. However, dependence on a seasonal transportation infrastructure risks an increasing number of disruptions as the climate warms, possibly leading to rising prices and shortages in fuel, food, and other supplies.

Permafrost
    • Critical infrastructure has become vulnerable to subsidence and erosion as the permafrost melts unevenly.

Benefits & Risks – Construction techniques can attempt to minimize the likelihood of further permafrost melt; however, they cannot reverse the overall trend.

Water Source and Distribution
    • Source – The community sources water from three shallow wells located in the Noatak River. Low water levels have led to occasional seasonal water shortages.

    • Quality – Water quality has been compromised in two ways: through increased turbidity in the river caused by erosion from heavy precipitation events and through the introduction of landfill waste in the river caused by bank erosion. Increasing levels of giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium have been detected at the water treatment plant, increasing water filtration costs to an unsustainable level. Traditional water sources also can be contaminated with pathogens such as giardia lamblia.

    • Quantity – The community water treatment plant was constructed in 1995 with storage designed to service a population of 486 for 3 days; however, the population connected to the water supply currently exceeds 500. Roughly 70% of homes are connected to the public water system. The rest continue to haul water and use honey buckets to treat waste.

    • Structural Integrity – The community water treatment plant was constructed with a reinforced concrete slab foundation on an insulated gravel pad and ten thermosyphons that remove heat from the ground to prevent the permafrost from thawing. In spite of these measures, the permafrost has thawed to a depth of 5-10 feet, compromising the foundation. Contributing factors: warm pipelines, drifting snow, rainwater runoff, solar heat gain. Breaks in the water main have averaged >1 per year over the past decade and are increasing. Breakages are attributed to thawing permafrost and appear to coincide with increasing air temperature.

Benefits & Risks – The public water system provides access to high quality water; however, the treatment plant is over capacity, is extremely energy-intensive, and suffers from increasing vulnerability to structural failures due to melting permafrost.

Wastewater
    • The public wastewater collection system was constructed in 1992 to service the sites connected to the public domestic water system and includes a 7,500 linear foot sewer main, arctic pipe cleanouts, and a system of manholes.

    • Septic tanks perform primary treatment, and the resulting effluent is discharged to a 50,000-gallon lagoon before flowing down into a 3-acre tundra pond for secondary treatment. Waste sludge is deposited in the community landfill.

    • Similar to the potable water system, the public wastewater system suffers from sagging sewer pipes and settling manholes.

Benefits & Risks – The public wastewater system provides a higher level of wastewater treatment at a lower level of individual effort than the traditional honey bucket system; however, similar to the potable water system, it is extremely energy-intensive, and suffers from increasing vulnerability to structural failures due to melting permafrost.

Stormwater Mitigation
    • Thawing permafrost and increased severity of precipitation events are causing flooding damage to fragile riverbanks and coastlines.

Benefits & Risks – Risks associated with increased stormwater include injury, compromised water quality, risk of mold growth in flooded structures, and reduced subsistence food supplies.

Imagine You Were Designing a Replacement Health Clinic in this Community…

Based on the information listed above regarding the current condition of the community water infrastructure and its likely future as the climate continues to change, you might consider starting the design process by asking questions such as:

  • Considering its structural problems and capacity constraints, should we connect to the central water & wastewater system at all?

  • What alternatives exist for water collection, treatment, and storage?

  • How can we conserve water?

  • What type of water efficient fixtures function in this area? Can we obtain them?

  • Can we treat and store water on-site to multiple levels of purity based on the use it will be put to?

  • What is the best way to design a foundation that may sit on permafrost today but will likely need to transition to a floating foundation in a few years?

  • How will that transition affect the water and sewer pipes? Do they need to be located above ground instead of below ground?

  • What can we learn from the way water is conveyed, treated, and disposed at the community’s seasonal subsistence camps that will help the permanent community become more resilient to climatic changes?

The answer to these questions might result in solutions similar to the following list of design recommendations, which have been organized to highlight their relevance to building codes, green building programs, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs.

Design Recommendations

Relevance to…

 

 

 

Building/Planning Codes

Green Building Programs

GHG Emissions Programs

1. Design the site landscaping to retain, filter, and reuse stormwater on-site to reduce erosion, the risk of flooding, and compromising river water quality.

Codes will govern the level of treatment required and the type of usage allowed.

Erosion control. Stormwater mitigation. Water efficient landscaping.

Reduces emissions by reducing the volume of water processed by the wastewater treatment plant.

 

2. Maximize the efficiency of water fixtures. Investigate whether a hybrid technology between traditional flush toilets and honey buckets might be implemented successfully on-site.

Health and plumbing codes guidelines may restrict efficiency technologies in certain areas of the clinic.

 

Water use reduction.

Reduces emissions by reducing demand on the public water system.

3. Design underground water pipes with flexible connections to minimize the likelihood of breakages in the event of uneven settlement due to melting permafrost.

Building codes in regions with floating foundations may provide guidance on best practice technologies.

 

Increasing longevity of building structures and water infrastructure.

Reduces emissions by reducing waste in the public water system caused by leaks.

4. Install foundation monitors and built-in leveling devices to facilitate conversion to a floating system when the permafrost melts.

Building codes in regions with floating foundations may provide guidance on best practice technologies.

 

Increasing longevity of building structures and water infrastructure.

Reduces emissions by reducing the need to retrofit and/or rebuild foundations and infrastructure.

5. Pilot test distributed wastewater technologies to reduce demand on the central wastewater system.

Codes will govern the level of treatment required and the type of usage allowed.

 

Wastewater use reduction.

Reduces emissions by reducing demand on the public wastewater system.

6. Investigate options for on-site rainwater and snow storage, including whether the health clinic should manage its water supply and wastewater autonomously or whether an on-site water and wastewater system might service the surrounding neighborhood.

Codes will govern the level of treatment required and the type of usage allowed.

Erosion control. Stormwater mitigation. Water efficient landscaping. Water use reduction.

Reduces emissions by reducing demand for potable water and reducing the volume of water processed by the wastewater treatment plant.

 

7. Work with the local public health agency to test the filtration level of onsite water collection and wastewater treatment so that the development is authorized to use it as drinking water.

Codes will govern the level of treatment required and the type of usage allowed.

Stormwater mitigation. Water efficient landscaping. Water use reduction. Wastewater use reduction.

Reduces emissions by reducing demand for potable water and reducing the volume of water processed by the wastewater treatment plant.

 

8. Investigate options for on-site renewable energy sources that could power an on-site water and/or wastewater system.

Incentives may be available to help fund on-site renewable energy installations.

On-site renewable energy. Stormwater mitigation. Water efficient landscaping. Water use reduction.

Reduces emissions by reducing energy demand, reducing potable water demand, and reducing the volume of water processed by the wastewater treatment plant.

Reference

Climate Change in Noatak, Alaska: Strategies for Community Health. (2011) Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Center for Climate and Health. Available at: http://www.anthc.org/chs/ces/climate/upload/Climate_Change_in_Noatak_Strategies_for_Community_Health.pdf

U.S. EPA Level I Ecoregion Website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/wed/pages/ecoregions/na_eco.htm

Image Credit: (C) Aqvaluq Photography.

Image available at: http://i149.photobucket.com/albums/s63/tundratantrum/noataktrip8.jpg

Tundratantrum blog, Keeping it Real at 66 Degrees North Latitude.

 

Are you interested in learning about how this type of assessment can benefit your design project or existing facility? Contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for additional information about our services and a free initial consultation.

 

Copyright: © Biositu, LLC, and Building Public Health, 2011.

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