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New village site for erosion-threatened Newtok gains one special home

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: August 22, 2016
  • Published August 21, 2016

A new house at Mertarvik, the site on Nelson Island where the village of Newtok is moving, features skids, so that it can be easily moved. Cold Climate Housing Research Center designed the house and it was built by an all-local crew. (Cold Climate Housing Research Center)

For the past few years, six houses have sat on the grassy riverbank that will someday be the new site of the Western Alaska village of Newtok. 

This summer, a seventh rose up — white, with a red roof. And skis where it meets the ground so it can be moved later if needed.

Designed by the Fairbanks-based Cold Climate Housing Research Center, the $320,000 home, built with federal money, is the first of any home built at the new Newtok village site since 2012. It's a sign of optimism for the village of about 350, which is facing the monumental task of moving to higher ground to avoid being swallowed up by erosion and thawing permafrost. 

Newtok, on a slough near the Bering Sea with an elevation around sea level, is the furthest along of any other climate-change-endangered village in its efforts to relocate, but the federal government has declared more than 30 Western Alaska villages "imminently threatened" by climate change. 

Just last week, the coastal village of Shishmaref became the second village to vote to relocate.

"We have to work together to make sure that the moving of this community is successful," said Jack Hebert, chief executive of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, referring to Newtok. "It is just the first of a number of communities that are facing the same thing."

But the new house is also a prototype for energy-efficient homes that can be easily moved and takes aim at problems with sanitation and health in rural Alaska. In Newtok, as in other villages, inadequate ventilation and water treatment and sanitation systems are well-documented.

Cold Climate Housing Research Center designed the house and it was built by an all-local crew. (Cold Climate Housing Research Center)

In an approach developed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, gravity feeds water to the sink and toilet in the new house. The portable sanitation system separates liquids and solids to either filter into an underground leach field or dry out for burning or disposal in the landfill — no more honey buckets, dumped regularly into a slough or the river.

A small gasoline generator and batteries produce electricity that is expected to someday come from the sun or wind. The 1,000-square-foot house is expected to use fewer than 200 gallons of heating oil for space heating and hot water.

By contrast, a similar-size conventional house in Bethel uses an average of 835 gallons of heating oil a year. 

A crew of Newtok residents built the house over seven weeks in the summer at the new site on Nelson Island, called Mertarvik. A system of wooden supports that can be easily tipped up helped make for a quick assembly, Hebert said.

In Newtok, nearly all the 78 homes are more than 25 years old and falling apart. If maintained properly, the new Mertarvik home should last decades, Hebert said.

The house is on a skidded foundation because the surveying hasn't been done for the new village. Once the villagers decide the layout, the house can be moved.  

The new house features skids, so that it can be easily moved. (Cold Climate Housing Research Center)

But the layout and surveying are two pieces of a daunting puzzle. There is no school, no medical clinic, no airstrip and no roads at the Mertarvik site. A federally funded evacuation center is unfinished.

Three families have been living seasonally at the new site. They come when the river breaks up in the spring and return to Newtok before the water freezes over.

Planners are calling this the "pioneering" phase — a few families moving to Mertarvik before basic services exist, and encouraging others to do the same.

"The single most important thing for getting this community over there is housing," said Sally Russell Cox, a state planner who has been working with climate-threatened villages on relocation plans.

Time, always precious, seems ever closer to running out. The closest house in Newtok is about 160 feet from the Ninglick River bank. The average rate of erosion is between 50 and 75 feet a year but major storms have gulped as much as 300 feet from the bank.  

While the latest house is a sign of optimism, it isn't known yet when the next will be built.

The research center is working on a master plan for housing at Mertarvik. The document will lay out the types of housing and infrastructure that will be built, as well as options for paying for all of it.

Money, Cox said, is the "big elephant in the room." She said the new house is an excellent prototype.

"But it's one home," she said.

That one home will be a place for a Newtok elder to live, however.

A housewarming party is being planned for the fall. 

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