ANCHORAGE - Relocating the eroding village of Shishmaref to solid ground could cost $180 million, according to a new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The calculation is nearly double the cost of relocating the 600 residents of the Bering Strait village to Nome.
The figures are still preliminary, but indicate a huge looming expense in rural Alaska, where flooding and erosion threaten dozens of communities. Several, including Shishmaref, have begun to press state and federal agencies for money to move.
Additional studies in coming months will better examine the costs of dealing with erosion in Shishmaref and six other communities. Ultimately, Congress will have to determine whether to move the affected communities or battle nature.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, recently warned that federal money may be harder for Alaska to come by in the future. He has not seen the corps report.
A recent report by the General Accounting Office found that nearly 90 percent of the state's 213 predominantly Native villages, historically situated along rivers and coasts, are affected regularly by floods or erosion.
Global warming has exacerbated the problems, according to the report. Melting permafrost is more prone to erosion, and the barrier of sea ice that protects many Arctic communities every winter is coming later in the year, leaving villages like Shishmaref vulnerable to fall storms.
In response to the growing problem, Congress asked the corps to examine seven of the state's most threatened communities: Dillingham, Bethel, Newtok, Unalakleet, Shishmaref, Kivalina and Kaktovik.
The overview is due out in March, said Bruce Sexauer, one of the corps planners involved in the project.
Dillingham and Bethel are too large to move and can probably handle their erosion problems under existing programs. The threats facing Unalakleet and Kaktovik aren't immediate, Sexauer said.
The three remaining villages are considered the highest priorities, and each is undergoing further study now, Sexauer said.
The preliminary Shishmaref report finished first because Stevens earmarked money for it, he said, but the Newtok and Kivalina studies should follow soon.
By September, the corps hopes to finish an environmental impact statement for Shishmaref's potential move, Sexauer said. It will include better financial estimates, plus a section on the social and cultural costs of each alternative. The same process will be followed for Newtok and Kivalina, he said.
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