Towards resilient water infrastructure in Alaska Native communities through knowledge co-production


Climate change poses a major threat to the water security of Alaska Native communities. While local, state, and federal agencies have spent considerable funds to design and build piped water supply systems in rural Alaskan communities, many of these systems were built on permafrost soils assuming the ground would remain frozen year-round. Now, rising temperatures are causing arctic permafrost to thaw, which in turn is causing underground water supply pipes to burst and leak. These pipe bursts have led to persistent water supply outages, to the extent that nearly 80% of interviewed Alaska Native residents cite pipe leaks or breaks as one of the most pressing issues affecting their quality of life. New sensing technologies have the potential to mitigate water supply problems by enabling operators to pre-emptively detect leaks and prevent outages. At the same time, water system designs need to be mindful of the cultural meaning assigned to these systems and fully include Alaska Native communities in their co-design. Integrating new technologies requires a coordinated approach that recognizes traditional and local knowledge and empowers Alaska Native communities in the infrastructure design process. Towards this goal, this project bridges the environmental, technological, and social challenges that Alaska Native communities face with regard to their water systems. The project team will work closely with Alaska Native communities to co-develop new climate-resilient water infrastructure through knowledge co-production, the deployment of novel real-time water supply monitoring systems, and characterization of Arctic soil conditions and their effects on pipeline structural integrity.

To develop climate-resilient water supply systems for Alaska Native communities, this research project will bring together a multidisciplinary research team of engineers and social scientists working in coordination with village residents, tribal council leaders, utility staff, and nonprofit organizations representing Alaska Native communities in the Norton Sound region of western Alaska. Using a convergent research approach, this project will address fundamental knowledge gaps at the intersection of social, engineered and natural systems. First, knowledge co-production methods will be applied to understand the cultural significance of water and identify community-specific perspectives that affect the engineering design process. Second, a novel wireless sensor network for water supply monitoring will be deployed and paired with multiclass data-driven and model-based leak detection techniques to understand their potential for mitigating real-world water supply disruptions. Finally, lab and field experiments on Arctic soils will be combined with data-driven models to characterize the long-term performance of soil foundations and predict the potential for future soil-induced damage to water systems. These research objectives will be complemented by outreach efforts aimed at training community members in the use of sensing equipment, as well as educational programs designed to raise awareness of water supply issues and social disparities facing Alaska Native communities.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project PI(s)
Project Start Date
Jan 2023
Award Year