State officials say they are ready to take a leadership role in protecting coastal villages threatened by the sea, committing millions of dollars in the state budget to a new list of priority erosion-control projects.
A Palin administration Cabinet group has called for extending seawalls in two villages this summer and building a new evacuation road in a third. More than $11 million waits in the capital budget on Gov. Sarah Palin's desk to help the villages of Kivalina, Unalakleet and Newtok.
State officials say they hope the state money will attract new federal aid to keep the villages from washing away. They say the problem comes mostly from climate change and loss of seasonal sea ice that used to protect the villages from fall storms.
Nobody is ready, however, to commit to the costly process of moving all those villages permanently out of harm's way.
"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."
Without state leadership, a half-dozen threatened communities were left to jockey for limited federal funds and attention from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, officials say. The corps worked with the state in setting the 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-chair 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-chair, Mike Black, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.
Alaska's congressional delegation praised the state's effort last week, saying it will be easier to win federal earmarks for village projects with the state putting up money of its own. That discussion on new federal funds won't get under way until later this year, probably after the election, said a spokesman for Sen. Ted Stevens.
COUNTING ON EARMARKS
There's no money for coastal Alaska in President Bush's proposed budget, meaning any funds will have to be inserted with congressional earmarks -- a process that has been controversial these days in Washington, D.C., said Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders.
Palin's office isn't saying whether the coastal money or any other capital budget items are veto-proof. But a spokeswoman did say last week that a serious consideration in this case will be the potential for generating federal money with these appropriations.
The new priority list, announced by Palin administration officials in April, commits the state to protecting the endangered villages now, not just waiting for a possible move in the future, said Black.
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 -- two other villages on a state list drawn from a 2004 study by the Government Accountability Office -- the state is only providing planning funds.
Two new villages want to join the list, according to the Palin subcabinet report. Golovin, east of Nome, has experienced coastal flooding, while Diomede Island, in the Bering Strait, reports anecdotal concern about a shorter season due to weakening ice for the winter airstrip. The strip, built on sea ice, is essential for bringing in supplies, transportation officials say.
The top priority for all the villages is developing emergency operations and evacuation plans, said corps engineer Opheen.
"Those plans are the key to preventing the loss of life," she said.
KEEPING THE SEA AT BAY
The new state money includes $3.3 million to build a rip-rap 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 new effort is just a start, state officials say: To build a 3,300-foot rock wall protecting the full village will cost $30 million, including another $10.5 million in state funds.
The corps is already 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," said Ivanoff, "is we don't know when the next big one is."
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. Next step will be to find funding for a $4.5 million evacuation center, the state said.
The state's work to set priorities during the past winter was "an extremely valuable process," said Deborah Williams of Alaska Conservation Solutions, an environmental organization that monitors climate change issues here.
RELOCATION COSTS ARE HUGE
Still, the big unanswered question is where anyone will find the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to move these threatened villages away from the storm surf. Black said the state share of 35 percent is not necessarily expected to apply to that more expensive phase.
A likely source of federal funds would be carbon-limiting legislation expected to come up for debate in Congress next month. The measures would provide billions of dollars for Alaska climate-adaptation projects, said Chuck Kleeschulte, an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with the money coming from sale of carbon-emission rights to private companies.
That legislation faces uncertain prospects in an election year, but all three major presidential candidates say they hope to see some kind of carbon-limit bill pass in the future.
In Kivalina, villagers can look across a watery channel to an area on the mainland where they'd like to move. Government agencies aren't sure that's the best place, and a planning effort continues. It's important that the new site have barge access for unloading freight, and that the new village be built with inexpensive operation in mind, said Kivalina tribal administrator Colleen Swan.
"This rock revetment is going to buy us some time," Swan said.
Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 1-907-235-4244.