ANCHORAGE - One of Alaska's most eroded coastal villages is facing a new crisis: The closest river has gotten so shallow that barges can no longer make regular fuel deliveries to the remote community.
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Running out of fuel in Newtok would be disastrous, say leaders in the Yupik Eskimo community of 315. Without fuel, villagers can't run the snowmobiles and boats they use to search for subsistence foods like seal and halibut that are so crucial to their survival. "This is food we have to have to prepare for the whole wintertime," said acting administrator Stanley Tom.
Fuel to operate the power plant is being flown in to the village, which is far off the road system. But businesses and individuals can't afford such a costly alternative and only a couple thousand gallons of unleaded gasoline remain in the village, said Tom, whose variety store has run out of gas and heating oil to sell to customers. Residents, who have enough heating oil to last through winter, are looking for help to build a pipeline system to transport fuel delivered by barges from the next nearest river.
But state and federal funds for the increasingly battered site have dried up because Newtok has begun to relocate to higher ground nine miles to the south. The move is expected to take several years or more, casting the village in financial limbo. It's a unique predicament that could launch a precedent on how government deals with similar transitions in a region wracked by escalating climate change.
"The village is in a very tough spot. How to help is a puzzle," said Chris Mello with the Alaska Energy Authority who is investigating the problem with Gov. Sarah Palin's office. "No existing program that I know of is set up to cope with the situation they're in right now."
The narrow, meandering Newtok River loops around the village and once flowed freely, allowing barges to deliver fuel to the local tank farm. But the vast, rushing Ninglick River to the south has cut into the Newtok's circulation, turning it into a slough. Historical erosion maps show that in five decades the Ninglick has eaten almost three-fourths of a mile of land toward the village 480 miles west of Anchorage. Only a few hundred feet of swampy tundra remain.
Now sediments pushed in by the Ninglick have settled in the Newtok rather than being flushed out as in the past.
Every year the problem is more acute, said Mark Smith, an executive in the Anchorage office of Crowley Maritime Corp., which delivers bulk fuel by barge to scores of rural Alaska communities.
"Newtok, like several other villages, is subject to geological changes and that's made it a much more difficult village to serve," Smith said. "I think it's gotten worse."
So much so that barges in recent years made regular deliveries each spring and fall with lighter loads. Then last spring, barge crews spent several days waiting for tides to raise the level of the Newtok River before they could make a delivery. That was the last time a barge delivery was attempted.
Conditions on the Newtok River have deteriorated so much that the company likely will no longer make fall deliveries when crews are hustling to fill final orders before winter closes in. That means just one yearly delivery in warmer months - if tides allow.
"The delivery window has just been shrinking every year," Smith said.
For now, Crowley is flying the power company's ordered fuel in at barge prices.
Everyone else has to pay air freight. That's a cost Tom says he and others can't pay in the low-income community. His customers last paid $4.25 for a gallon of gas and he would have to charge $7.50 a gallon to absorb the added expense.
If the village runs out of gasoline before another barge is able to deliver, local hunters won't be able take their snowmobiles or motor boats out to look for such foods as seal, walrus and beluga, said his cousin Teddy Tom, who maintains equipment at the power plant.
"Hunting makes us able to eat," he said. "Without gas, I would be stuck in the village. I would pay more at the store."
In a letter sent this month to state officials by Newtok's tribal government, Stanley Tom said there is no money available to dredge the Newtok. He said a fuel transfer pipeline system from the Ninglick would make delivery easier for barges. Hauling the fuel from there is impossible because of the soggy terrain.
Village leaders hope government agencies will provide some funding - or at least technical assistance - to develop a safe fuel transport system. There simply are not enough storage tanks for a year's worth of fuel, Tom said.
"It could be a temporary aboveground pipeline system until we move. Nothing fancy," he told The Associated Press.
But any viable solution would be a huge expense - just how much, no one knows - and government at all levels would be hard-pressed to justify spending increasingly tight public dollars on a stopgap measure, according to state and federal officials.
A fuel pipe alone would not be a suitable solution. The village also is in dire need of adequate storage. Its present bulk fuel tanks are "are old and rusty and leaky and the power plant is old and beat up," said Mello, who manages the energy authority's rural upgrades program. He is working with the governor's office to see if anything can be done in the interim, but said no funding source has been identified.
"We're trying to think outside the box here," he said. "But I can tell you that it's very challenging."
From the governor's office, spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said: "Gov. Palin is monitoring the situation in Newtok and will work with the Alaska Energy Authority to help the village get some relief from the fuel problems they are facing."
Another problem is that no single entity has taken a lead role in a slew of erosion projects involving overlapping layers of government, including federal, state, tribal, regional and local agencies. No one has yet defined government's place in the gray area between a relocation.
"The situations which Newtok and other coastal Alaskan villages face concerns me greatly," U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said in written statement to the AP. "This is a real world example of the impacts of climate change in North America - signs of change are apparent in Alaska today, and the consequences are very real to us."
Perhaps a partial answer is to fund solutions that can be carried over to new sites, a portable fuel delivery system for example, said Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
"It's one of the challenges that the government will face in trying to determine its role," he said. "It's an enormous problem that's going to require enormous resources."