Erosion threat has village looking for homes

River is causing property damage, chipping away at land

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

NEWTOK - When Betty Ann Tom looks out her kitchen window she sees a wide river where there used to be only land.

For the past 10 years, natural erosion from the Ninglick River has eaten away at her village, about 100 miles west of Bethel in western Alaska. People watched as the spots where they used to go berry picking vanished. They worried as their homes shifted and sank, as their boardwalks got crooked and as their lagoon overflowed.

Erosion and newly formed river channels are turning Newtok into an island, forcing villagers to take a hard look at relocating.

On May 22, residents voted for the third time since 1984 to move to a hilly area called Taqikcaq on Nelson Island. The land is part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, and villagers hope to swap property with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start a new life.

If the Newtok Native corporation agrees to terms presented by the refuge, the land swap could be completed in as little as 18 months, said Paul Liedberg, assistant refuge manager.

The village's history with floods is a long one. Michael John was a child in the late 1950s, when people moved to Newtok by dogsled from an area called Old Kealvik 10 miles away. Floods threatened Old Kealvik. The land where Newtok currently lies was chosen because it was higher. John says he knows the village must move again.

Frank Tommy's home sinks into the mud a few inches every year. This past winter, erosion opened a 1-foot gap between his porch and the rest of his house.

"I'd really like to live on solid ground," he said.

Villagers say the land is changing before their eyes.

Nick Tom Jr. remembers small ponds with swans that used to be on the riverbank. The river engulfed the ponds.

Erosion created a new channel about a half-mile east of the original entrance to the Newtok River, on the bank opposite the Ninglick, according to Tom. The Newtok River becomes shallower every year.

"The barges are having a hard time coming in through the Newtok River to deliver," Tommy said.

In the springtime when the ice flows through the river, it shears off large amounts of land. As the rivers get closer, the town's land shrinks. The tundra that offers bridges to surrounding villages is sinking.

"You can't fight Mother Nature," John said.

In the past, village leaders have tried. In 1983 they contracted the Army Corps of Engineers to build a sea wall. Strong currents ground under the cement of the wall and it collapsed within a few months.

The search for a new home has been a long one. Another proposed site along Narukacuk River was voted down by the community after years of deliberation. That land was mostly tundra. Supporters thought it was good for hunting. But opponents believed the land was too low and would eventually erode as Newtok has.

The Newtok Native corporation has been trying to trade some of its land for the Nelson Island site since 1996, said Liedberg.

Refuge managers were concerned that they get a large enough parcel in the exchange to mitigate possible damage to Pacific black brant habitat, Liedberg said. The birds nest on Baird Inlet Island near the proposed site for the village.

The Newtok Traditonal Council recently secured a $32,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to identify land-use needs on the new site, including possible locations for an airport, water and sewer system, school and other facilities, Tom said.

But the community still must find some way to pay for the expense of testing the land, securing permits and physically moving. These could run up to $7 million, Tom said.

"The erosion is our No. 1 priority. It will not wait for money," Tom said.

Most villagers have lived in Newtok their whole lives. They try to envision what it will be like in the hilly land, 300 feet above sea level, across the river.

Many lament the things they will leave behind. Some will miss the sight of the mountains shrouded in fog in the wintertime. Others will miss long walks on the tundra in the summer.

"It will be lonely at first, but we will get used to it," said David Kassaiuli.

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