Encroaching river set clock ticking on Newtok

August 29, 2009 

NEWTOK --The ground shakes whenever a new hunk of shoreline falls into the river outside Tillie Tommy's window. Like "somebody trying to jack up the house," she says.

Her doorstep sits a short walk from the water's edge, where the swelling Ninglick River is gobbling more than 70 feet of coast a year -- one muddy splash at a time. At the current rate, the erosion will chomp its way to her house in as soon as three years. A few years after that, it'll be the school.

Tommy, her neighbors and a growing list of government agencies are running a race against nature, and what happens could have consequences for coastal communities all around the state.

On one shore, Newtok's landfill and barge landing have already fallen into the ocean-fed waves. The arm of a sunken piece of machinery reaches above the water like a sea monster.

On the opposite bank nine miles upstream, military reservists spent much of the summer making preparations for moving the entire community to a new home on higher ground.

The potential cost of the relocation is jolting. But backers argue that finding a way to make it happen is important to maintain a piece of a living indigenous culture. They're trying to come up with creative ways to do it.

In Newtok, population 360, friends chat in plywood steam houses instead of Starbucks. Parents pick berries and hunt seals to feed their families, and elders give advice in Yup'ik over VHF radios. Although the riverbank has been eroding steadily toward the village for at least 50 years, local leaders and researchers say a changing climate may have accelerated the creep, making Newtok an attractive symbol of global warming for policymakers and environmentalists.

It's also become the testing ground for how to uproot and move an Alaska village at a time when, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, another three villages also need fast-paced relocations to escape erosion and melting permafrost. Another 22 coastal communities in Alaska require some degree of immediate attention, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps is spending more than $41 million to build rock walls in Shishmaref, Unalakleet and Kivalina to slow erosion and give those villages more time to relocate.

But Newtok, west of Bethel and just a few miles inland from the Bering Sea, is by far the closest to actually moving.

The village has already traded land with the federal government for a new site. The state built a barge landing there over the summer and is planning for a water and sewer system and airstrip. Home construction could begin as early as 2011.

Only here comes the hardest part: figuring out how to pay for it all.

NOMADIC LIFE

The soggy, treeless tundra surrounding Newtok is flat as a flapjack -- a green quilt of streams, rivers and lakes.

The village itself is tiny. A few dozen houses, some sagging into the earth, sit clumped together between two rivers and a landing strip. The Corps of Engineers says erosion could hit the school -- the biggest building in town -- by 2017.

Hunters carry rifles and cell phones across wooden boardwalks leading to boats on muddy banks. Kids speak Yup'ik to their grandparents. Strips of pike hang drying on wooden beams. No roads, no cars, a couple small stores, a clinic. Liquor is forbidden.

The ancestors of the people here have lived in the region for 2,000 years. Until the 20th century, they were semi-nomadic, living in sod dwellings and moving with the seasons to find food.

They established the current village in the late 1940s and '50s, moving from a settlement across the Newtok River to escape seasonal flooding and because the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted them to build a school, according to the state and local leaders. That meant either finding a place where a barge could bring building materials, or losing their children to boarding schools, said tribal administrator Stanley Tom.

"We were nomadics back then. We never thought of living in a permanent village."

Elders chose the new site, on a bend in the Ninglick. They liked its proximity to subsistence hunting and fishing spots.

Some people in the village had reservations about the move at the time, Tom said. The new location was probably seen by the BIA as simply the most convenient place to deliver materials for the school, said Sally Cox, a planner for the state Department of Community and Regional Affairs and an expert on the move.

At the time, the Ninglick shore was nearly a mile from the new village.

Between 1957 and 2005, the shore eroded an average of 72 feet a year, with residents reporting as much as 300 feet falling away in a single year, according to the Corps of Engineers. As the river eats away the tundra, it exposes a bluff of black dirt at the water's edge. As you approach it from the village, big cracks in the earth hint where the next chunks of land will fall.

INFLUENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change appears to be making it worse, researchers say.

Sea ice that once protected coastal villages against waves is thinning and shrinking to record low amounts, said David Atkinson, a research scientist for the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

That allows stronger ocean waves and surges of seawater to travel upriver to Newtok, where they melt permafrost and collapse the riverbank. Meantime, he said, warming temperatures may be melting permafrost farther inland here. Residents point out buildings sinking.

Another problem: Losing so much of the land buffer between the river and village has made the place even more vulnerable to floods.

The global warming connection has made Newtok famous. In 2007 The New York Times declared the village a victim of climate change. The next year the Guardian from London visited. CNN did a story in the spring as part of its "Planet in Peril" coverage.

With the barge dock under water since 2005, all food arrives by plane. The military reservists, who sometimes play Xbox 360 in their tents with the villagers, buy Cokes for $1.44 a can when they boat across.

On the store wall is a poster written in Yup'ik. The young clerk, Shelly Carl, translated: "It's telling the people that there's going to be Army men working over there, and they don't want people going over there because they'll have dangerous equipment."

Villagers visit all the time anyway to check out their future home. Navy reservist Adrian Diaz said their boating tips helped the military visitors avoid potential disasters when crossing the roiling river.

"We almost capsized twice, two different days," Diaz said. In his day job, he's a drug, alcohol and gang counselor in California. After Alaska, Diaz said, he heads to Afghanistan.

PUBLIC-FUNDING LIMBO

Newtok is squeezed between two rivers -- the Ninglick, which is causing the erosion, and the Newtok, a tributary where villagers park their skiffs.

The smaller river is part highway, part sewer line.

As residents loaded their boats on a recent afternoon, a man in rubber boots said hello to his neighbors, walked to the edge of the wooden dock and poured a bucket of human waste into the watery riverbank. Twenty minutes later, someone else did the same thing.

Except for the school, only a few homes here have flush toilets. That's not uncommon in this part of Alaska. As elsewhere, people haul fresh water into their houses by buckets and haul out waste in buckets, too.

But there's a difference with Newtok. Normally, a village would have a community sewage lagoon to contain the waste -- a pond set off from where people live. But there's little chance of that, or anything else new, being built in Newtok these days. The relocation effort has frozen the community in a kind of public-funding purgatory because no one wants to spend money on a place that's about to be abandoned.

The river used to wash the waste out to sea. But the erosion has turned the Newtok into a shallow slough, and lately, residents say, it doesn't wash out like it used to. Sometimes floods sweep it back into town.

On a recent afternoon, the riverbank reeked of sewage.

Martha Simon, who moved to the village from Bethel 11 years ago, said kids get sores in the summer from playing on dirty boardwalks where people track waste from the river.

To her, relocation means the promise of indoor plumbing.

Cox said some villagers already haul drinking water back to Newtok from the new village site. The place has been named "Mertarvik" -- Yup'ik for "getting water from the spring."

Some of the reservists have taken to calling it "Newertok."

While many Newtok residents said they're excited about the move, others worry. What will the weather be like? What happens during freezeup, when Ninglick River blocks boats and snowmachines from traditional fishing spots?

Even those with concerns say they have little choice but to relocate. But outside the village, the fledgling move raises a different question, one that strikes at the heart of rural Alaska's survival: How much money should government spend to save a village the size of a single city neighborhood?

ESTIMATE: $2 MILLION PER HOUSEHOLD

The Corps of Engineers has estimated the cost of relocating three of the most-threatened coastal villages -- Newtok, Kivalina and Shishmaref -- at up to $455 million.

Moving Newtok alone could cost $80 million to $130 million, the Corps estimated in 2006. At the high end, that's about $2 million per household.

For years, former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens -- who was empathetic to the eroding villages' plights -- warned that huge outlays of money like that just weren't realistic. He and others began pushing for gradual, piecemeal approach involving multiple layers of government and local communities. Agencies and communities have tried to come up with creative approaches, such as tapping the military for some site work here. But money remains the big hurdle.

Why do it at all?

If you only look at the number of people every government dollar will help, sparsely populated Alaska will never survive, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who visited the village for a town hall meeting Aug. 21.

"But what we're talking about here is the existence of a people. When they are separated from their land, they lose their language. They lose their culture. They lose their identify. And what do we have for it? Broken people."

"We saw that, to certainly an extent, with the American Indian when we took them away from the land and gave them reservations and said, 'Here, here's how we're going to make it even,' " she said.

Sen. Mark Begich had planned to bring three fellow senators to Newtok this weekend as part of a tour meant to highlight climate change in Alaska. The trip was canceled after Sen. Edward Kennedy's death, though a Begich spokeswoman said the plan is to try and visit at some later date.

Even with Begich and Murkowski pushing for climate change legislation that could funnel funding to Alaska's coastal communities, finding cash for the relocation is likely be a grueling, gradual process at the federal level and in Alaska.

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, expects to face "tremendous challenges" finding the money.

But as the erosion nears Newtok landmarks like the school, and as organizers win money for a runway or Post Office at the new site, the move will build momentum, Herron said.

"It will probably take longer than people are hoping for, but I think it comes down to the basic reality of that river impacting major infrastructure in the town."

At worst, he said, the community may have to move the school away from the water to buy more time for relocation.

FINDING THE MONEY

The state is about to hire a contractor to draw up a blueprint for the relocation. The idea is to build mostly new homes rather than hauling a majority of the fragile, wind-battered buildings across the frozen river. Tom estimates only about a third of the existing houses are movable.

Cox, the state planner, and village leaders like Tom are cobbling together funding wherever they can find it. It won't cost as much as people think, they said, with Tom calling the Corps' estimates "alarmingly too high."

Church groups have volunteered to hammer nails and help build houses, and the military is using the village move as a training exercise, providing millions of dollars of free labor and equipment.

The U.S. Department of Defense's nationwide Innovative Readiness Training program -- the same effort that brings free dental and medical care to villages -- made a five-year commitment to the move that began in July.

After the state built a barge landing, as many as 36 reservists from the Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy built a kind of collapsible base camp of plastic mats and tents to stage future construction. The Alaska Army National Guard in Bethel provided the communications and logistics hub for the effort, regularly flying men and equipment in Blackhawk helicopters to the new village site and a landing craft in Toksook Bay.

"It's comparable to what we'd do anywhere in the world. Establish a foothold on a beach head and basically set up a camp," said Master Sgt. Graham Hilson, a Marine who oversaw the mission. Weeks earlier he was in West Africa building a school for a similar training effort.

Hilson plans to recommend the forces get started even earlier next year and bring more than 100 reservists to help as work begins on a road and evacuation center.

While the federal Economic Development Administration provided $1 million in 2006 for the barge landing, most of the money for the move has come from the state.

That includes a $3 million investment toward the landing, an access road and evacuation center to house residents in case of a flood or emergency caused by erosion. This year's state construction budget includes another $2 million for the access road and shelter, Cox said.

Nearly everything else is in the planning stages. The state Village Safe Water program has drilled a test well and started preparing for a water and sewer system. The state Transportation Department has spent about $1 million on airport planning.

All that leaves the bulk of the money, tens of millions of dollars to find.

"This money thing is kind of fluid," Cox said. "We get money for whatever is happening at the time, and these things are built in stages."

VILLAGE WILL BE MISSED

Betty Ann Tom's place is one of the nicer houses in town; a warm red box standing on squat pilings with a plate of pilot bread and butter on the table. On a recent weeknight the smell of dinner -- dried pike and fatty herring soaked in seal oil -- lingered in the kitchen.

This is the home closest to shore -- roughly 250 paces from the coast. If the relocation doesn't move fast enough, the community will likely have to move Tom and her neighbors inland.

Her niece, Margaret Nickerson, sat on the couch visiting. Like many residents, Nickerson said she will miss the village she grew up in. The biggest move she can imagine making is across the river, where traditional hunting and fishing spots are still within reach.

"Move to Bethel? No thank you. Move to Anchorage? No thank you."

Newtok is peaceful, Nickerson said. "Over there, they can be loud. Grumpy."

Her aunt watched cable as her niece talked. When the weather turns bad and lashes the river into whitecaps outside the window, this is how they wait out the storms.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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