State pledges millions of dollars to help ward off coastal erosion

Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The state is committing millions of dollars to erosion control projects to help protect some of Alaska's coastal villages.

State officials say they are ready to take a leadership role to protect coastal villages threatened by the sea. A Palin administration Cabinet group is calling for extending seawalls in two villages this summer and building a new excavation road in a third.

State officials say they hope the millions in state money will attract new federal aid to keep the villages from washing away. The problem, they say, stems from climate change and loss of seasonal sea ice that used to protect the villages from fall storms.

Without state leadership, a half-dozen threatened communities were left to compete for limited federal funds and attention from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, the corps is working with the state in setting a new priority list.

"The hope is we won't see random acts of government activity that are not focused on the same shared vision," said Patricia Opheen, the chief of engineering for the Army corps' Alaska District and federal co-chairwoman of the working group that drew up the plans.

The new money appropriated by the Legislature represents 35 percent of the total anticipated cost of several seawall projects. That 35 percent state share was set in discussions with the corps, said the state's co-chairman, Mike Black, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

"We're real pleased with the efforts of the state," said Steve Ivanoff, a transportation planner based in Unalakleet for the regional nonprofit agency Kawerak. "The state had been absent from all the discussions in the past. They would only protect (Department of Transportation) properties, not residential areas."

The new priority list commits the state to protecting the endangered villages now, not just waiting for a possible move in the future, Black said.

One community that did not garner new construction funds from the state this year is Shishmaref, where the village is still working on a rock seawall extension begun last year with federal funding. The Army corps awarded a $6.8 million contract last year for the Shishmaref work.

"I guess other communities are needing protection too," said Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition member Tony Weyiouanna. He said an emergency evacuation of Kivalina during a fall storm last year "kind of put them up higher on the need for funding."

In Shaktoolik and Koyukuk, the state is only providing planning funds.

The new state money includes $3.3 million to build a rock seawall in Kivalina, replacing part of a $3 million, 1,800-foot wall that relied on wire baskets and bags of sand and gravel. The earlier wall failed quickly and was given up for lost in last fall's storm.

The corps is putting $4 million into rock work this summer at Kivalina.

In addition, the state is putting $5 million toward a new seawall for Unalakleet. The full 1,500-foot wall there is expected to cost $13.5 million.

Unalakleet leaders hope to get the new seawall under way this summer, before the next round of fall storms.

"The problem with this whole thing is we don't know when the next big one is," Ivanoff said.

Kivalina and Shishmaref are built on barrier islands, but Newtok faces a different problem: Tundra beneath the village is melting and collapsing into a tidal river exposed to sea waves.

An effort to move the Bering Sea village to high ground is starting, with $3 million in new state money helping to build a barge landing and evacuation road. The next step will be to find funding for a $4.5 million evacuation center, the state said.

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