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Erosion may force three Native villages to relocate, report says

Storm-heavy coastal area may be unsafe within 10 years

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Erosion is attacking three of Alaska's most vulnerable Native villages so rapidly that residents could be forced to seek refuge somewhere else in a decade, according to a new report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Shishmaref, Kivalina and Newtok have a projected mortality of 10- to 15-years at their present locations along Alaska's storm-battered western coast. Moving the small communities to safer ground could cost as much as $355 million altogether, the corps said in the 44-page document detailing the expected impact of erosion in seven rural communities.

The others examined - Bethel, Dillingham, Kaktovik and Unalakleet - were given a 100-year life expectancy. About $74 million in federal and state funds have been spent to date on erosion control efforts in all seven communities.

The congressionally mandated report, released Wednesday, raised provocative questions that need to be answered in the complex process of relocation: Who has final say in the selection of the new site? Does a community move at once or incrementally, such as Newtok is attempting to do? What becomes of the old site, particularly one with cultural value or potential contamination? How does climate change affect seaside villages typically protected against powerful elements by shore-fast ice that's now forming later in the fall?

"We were able to show people what some of the issues are," said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner who worked on the report. "It just shows there's a lot of work that needs to be done."

Some believe the corps' estimated timeline was overly optimistic for Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo village wedged between two rivers that have been severely flooded by escalating storms in recent years. The community completed a federal land trade in 2004 for a new site on Nelson Island nine miles southeast of the existing village.

Erosion has long been a problem in Newtok and scores of other Alaska communities. In Newtok, 480 miles west of Anchorage, the Ninglick River has eaten an average of 70 feet of bank a year, overtaking the village landfill in 1996. It's now moving through Newtok's barge landing, requiring that most supplies be flown to the remote village.

But while many eroding communities are built on sand or gravel, Newtok's foundation is permafrost, which is melting and sinking, making it more vulnerable to flooding, said Stanley Tom, a tribal liaison for the village of 315. The corps noted in its report that depleting permafrost could play a significant role in erosion in river communities in general, but not as it affected Newtok.

"I'd like to tell the corps they're wrong about the timing," Tom said. "It's way off, 100 percent off. We have only three to four more years here."

The report, however, acknowledges shortfalls in the method determining how long an existing site might be inhabited.

"For example, it assumes that the community would do nothing to protect itself, that the soils are basically the same composition as they go farther inland, and that the forces contributing to the erosion would remain constant over the period of future analysis," the report states. "What this analysis does is show the potential ranges of erosion if left unchecked."

Erosion would be a moot issue, however, if the village is drowned out by floodwaters.

Officials with the Alaska Division of Community Advocacy agreed that Newtok's demise is imminent. But they said relocating to the new site or other community doesn't have to cost as much as the corps' estimated range of $80 million to $130 million, or roughly $250,000 to more than $400,000 per resident.

Building a barge landing and water source at the new site would allow residents to contribute to the move themselves and would require relatively modest government investment initially, said division director Mike Black. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs also is funding planned construction of three homes at the site this summer and other plans are under way to study logistics for an airstrip.

"As Newtok becomes less desirable or even uninhabitable, each family is going to make a decision, whether to move to the new site or to a neighboring village or somewhere else" Black said. "As more people move to the new site, then government can respond appropriately."

Tom said Newtok residents want to participate as much as possible. They're hoping to borrow or obtain donated equipment like tractors and skids to tow salvageable homes and other buildings to the new site.

"If we had the tractors and skids, we could start moving along," Tom said.

Cost estimates aside, the corps prefers a similar gradual approach to relocating communities.

"This will spread out the cost and the logistics over time," the agency wrote. "For a while, it would seem that there are two communities, but eventually, the new site would be the more desirable location for the community to have its permanent residence and the old site would no longer be maintained."

Erosion is considered an urgent issue by the state's congressional delegation, said representatives for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The senators have introduced legislation to create a state-federal commission to look at flooding and erosion in Alaska. They've also secured funding for studies by the corps and erosion protection projects.

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