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Alaska News

Shishmaref votes to relocate from eroding barrier island to mainland

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: August 19, 2016
  • Published August 18, 2016

Residents of the coastal Alaska village with some of the worst erosion in the state voted this week to relocate rather than stay and protect the land they already have.

The advisory vote in the village of Shishmaref was fairly close, with 94 voters who picked relocating to one of two nearby sites on the mainland, and 78 who said they would rather "protect in place." The City Council certified the election results Thursday, said Donna Barr, a council member who serves as secretary.

The ballot measure included specific sites for relocation, she said.

"I think in the year 2001 or 2002 we only had a show of hands on who wanted to move at a tribal meeting," Barr said.

Shishmaref, with fewer than 600 people, is on tiny Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea, 126 miles north of Nome. The land has been eroding for decades but the rate is accelerating with climate change. The ice pack has been developing later and later each year, and fall and winter storms have been scouring away the shore.

The vote is significant, said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner who is working with Shishmaref and other communities at risk of being lost as their land crumbles away.

"It is the community's expression of what they want to do," Cox said. "If they want to start moving forward with agency support on relocation, the vote is really what triggers that support."

Relocations cost millions of dollars but the project can be broken into stages completed over time, as the village of Newtok is doing.

The vote wasn't overwhelming but it appears voters on both sides of the issue recognize the village is eroding, even those who opted to protect what they have, Barr said. In October 1997, a big storm gobbled up more than 30 feet of the island's north shore.

Fourteen homes and the National Guard Armory had to be moved, and five more homes were relocated in 2002, according to the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs.

The island is only 4 miles long and some parts are just one-quarter mile wide, Barr said. Ten to 30 feet of shore are being washed out a year and the village eventually will have to move, she said.

"There's no question if. It is when," she said.

The city, the Shishmaref tribe and the village corporation already work together on the prospect of moving, Barr said. With the vote, local, tribal, state, federal and nonprofit agencies may start working in earnest on the project, said Cox, the state official.

Rock seawalls have been built along parts of the shoreline at a cost of more than $27 million, according to the state. But the rock reinforcements eventually will be undermined by strong waves or scouring, officials say. And the shore along the airstrip is unprotected, Barr said.

The ballot asked residents if they would favor relocation to either of two favored mainland sites, Old Pond or another called West Tin Creek Hills. Old Pond is 13½ miles from Shishmaref  and Tin Creek is a bit closer. Both sites are undeveloped and would need an airstrip, road and barge landing, plus a school, clinic and housing.

A study of the sites was completed earlier this year for the city of Shishmaref by AECOM, a global engineering firm based in Los Angeles with offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Residents want to stay together in the area and not be scattered in towns and villages around Alaska, Barr said.

"This is where our home is," she said.

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