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Near Mile 109 along the Seward Highway, watch out for people carrying water jugs running across the road.
ANCHORAGE — Driving back to Alaska’s largest city from the Kenai Peninsula on a recent bright and sunny weekday afternoon, it was easy to get distracted by the beautiful scenery of the Turnagain Arm, a waterway that’s flanked by snowcapped mountains. The Seward Highway, which runs along the north side of Turnagain Arm, is a popular route for tourists heading out from Anchorage to explore the natural beauty that's abundant in this part of Alaska.
But for local residents in the know, there’s good reason to stop off at Mile 109, and it’s not to take pictures of the mountains and mudflats.
This spot sits near a bend in the two-lane highway and protruding from the rock face is a pipe that unceremoniously deposits water on the side of the road.
As Route Fifty passed by this site, there was a family of four running across the highway with jugs of water in their hands, a movement that prompted traffic to suddenly slow down.
It all happened too quickly to stop and grab a photo, but this image posted to a Yelp review gives you an idea of what the location looks like.
Why is this spot so popular? The Yelp review trumpets its qualities: “The water is crisp, cold, clear and delicious. Who knew water could taste good?”
Alaska.org promotes the water pipe as a visitor attraction: “No fees, no gimmicks: just a 5-foot pipe protruding from a granite cliff face that gushes crystal clear water capable of causing instant brain freezes.”
While humans have been flocking to natural springs over many centuries and have built spas and entire communities around them, the water feature at Mile 109 only dates back to the early 1980s.
As Alaska Dispatch News recently reported, while many think that the source of the water from the pipe comes from an underground spring, a state geologist believes it comes from fractures associated with 30-foot-deep drainage holes that had been drilled in the 1980s to alleviate pressure from the rockwall adjacent to the roadway.
The pipe is in a jurisdictional grey area: Both the Alaska Department of Transportation and Chugach State Park, which encompasses the surrounding land, do not claim authority over the pipe.
People are drawn to the pipe because its waters are free, seemingly pure and aren’t treated by the municipality. But since it’s not a sanctioned source, there are no regular water quality tests. Alaska Dispatch News commissioned a test and found higher levels of arsenic, though levels that fall below state standards.
Then there are other dangers associated with the pipe.
For DOT, the Mile 109 pipe is a concern. The highway along Turnagain Arm is the focus of ongoing safety improvements through education, law enforcement and redesign. The water pipe is a place where cars often park hazardously and pedestrians have inadequate separation from vehicles. But it's hardly the only spot.
It ranks in the top 10 locations for “rockfall trouble spots” along state-maintained highways in Alaska and the No. 1 rockfall trouble spot along Turnagain Arm.
It’s an unusual spot for sure—and a potentially dangerous one, too. But those risks haven't stopped plenty of Anchorage-area residents from lining up to collect water from the pipe over the years.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.