Saturday, April 23, 2016

Rural issues/Barbara's presentation.

Alaska has a lot of unique engineering challenges.  The presence of permafrost complicates both surface and subsurface building.  The extreme cold in the winters and the relatively high summer temperatures makes picking suitable building materials difficult due to thermal expansion and contraction, as well as the various changes to the properties of the building materials due to the temperature.  Our delicate environs are also easily harmed by various kinds of commercial and industrial waste, and many communities count on being able to reap the bounties of fish, animals and lumber that nature provides.  Finally, the remoteness of rural job sites makes getting the appropriate materials to the right place difficult and increases the damage that building materials receive due to transportation.  These problems are all issues that communities that wish to have running water, a basic utility many of us take for granted, will have to overcome.

The problem behind the investigation that Barbara did is that communities want the advantages to health, hygiene and convenience that a modern water utility and sewage system provides, but they are often unable to sustain the operation of a water utility.  The government provides funding for the construction of modern water utilities in these small communities.  These projects are extremely expensive due to Alaska.  These water utilities often fail because the small communities are unable to spread the operating costs over enough households and due to the relatively elastic demand for the services these utilities provide.  This is a wasteful use of funds, and a primary reason for this is a faulty method of evaluating which communities should receive government water utility construction assistance.  Barbara found that the government metric was generally set way too high, therefore many communities that would not be able to sustain a water utility were the sites of water utility projects.  Barbara proposed another way of evaluating the suitability of water utilities in communities to better choose recipients of government assistance.

At some level, I found myself struggling with issues concerning rural life.  As much as I respect indigenous practices, and I strongly believe that subsistence lifestyles are a part of Alaskan life, I am concerned with all of Alaska subsidizing communities that would otherwise not be viable.  We are facing an enormous state budget crisis right now, and I honestly wonder how much money is diverted into programs that subsidize people living in remote villages through heating oil subsidies, public works projects, etc.  I do not understand how certain modern amenities like water/sewage, electricity, fast internet, policing, firefighting, cell phone reception and the maintenance of equipment and infrastructure that sustain these amenities can be supported by small communities.  For instance, if a bag of Doritos chips in Tanana, a relatively large community on the banks of the Yukon, is nearly $10.00, and the same bag of chips can be had in Fairbanks for under 4 dollars, what do you think the cost of providing water to that community is comparatively?  Is it fair to taxpayers in Anchorage or Fairbanks to be sustaining programs that subsidize living in remote areas when that money could be used to improve services that benefit many, many more people in these larger communities?  As I stated earlier, I am having problems with dovetailing subsidizing villages with my personal views that subsistence is core value of Alaskan life.  I'd be interested in hearing other people comment on this.

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