WASHINGTON — Two Alaska Native villages will receive $25 million each from the federal government to help fund their ongoing efforts to relocate.
The funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law will go to Newtok and Napakiak in Western Alaska, where, as permafrost thaws and erodes, encroaching rivers threaten the communities. The communities will use the money to move core infrastructure to safer ground and create a new “center of gravity,” the Department of the Interior said in a written statement.
Eight other tribes will receive $5 million to fund planning for potential relocation, including four in Alaska: Point Lay, Huslia, Fort Yukon and Nelson Lagoon. The Biden administration will also give $25 million to Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state for relocation, due to threats its Taholah Village faces from sea level rise, storm surges and flooding.
Newtok and Napakiak are often held up as examples of communities facing the worst impacts of climate change. They represent a small fraction of the about 70 Alaska Native communities affected by rapid erosion, flooding and thawing permafrost. Though federal agencies have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to helping the communities address to climate change, the efforts have taken years, and a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found the funds can be difficult for villages to access and “much more needs to be done to protect them.”
Federal officials and Joseph John Jr., a council member in Newtok, say that this new allotment of funding could make a difference.
“When someone told me about that dollar amount, it got me excited. It would be useful for us, for our community,” John said. “Every little bit helps. Whatever dollars that come in helps.”
Newtok’s residents have been planning to relocate for decades. Families in Newtok started to move 9 miles away to a new village, Mertarvik, in 2019, but progress has been slow and made slower by the COVID pandemic. So far, Mertarvik has roads, but only a few homes. As of 2021, about 70 people lived in Mertarvik and about 190 people lived in Newtok, according to state data. The total cost to move Newtok residents has been estimated at $100 million.
In Napakiak, a community of about 360, erosion from the Kuskokwim River is threatening critical facilities including the school, fuel farm, water supply well and airport. Relocation for Napakiak’s residents has been delayed by lack of funding, according to the Interior Department.
An exact plan on how to spend the money will depend on the Interior Department’s conversations with Newtok and Napakiak, according to Garrett Boyle, co-chair of the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency that supports development in rural Alaska.
“Interior and all the other federal agencies will kind of go talk to the communities to figure out exactly what the goals and needs are,” Boyle said. “You’re getting this amount of money, but we haven’t exactly figured out the best way to spend it.”
To decide which communities would receive the funding, the Interior Department considered factors including how prepared the community is to relocate, what its plans look like and whether it has identified a place to move, the amount of risk it currently faces, its readiness to move and “the potential for lessons to be learned,” the agency said in a statement.
This new funding barely makes a dent in the Bureau Indian Affairs’ 2020 projection that $5 billion will be needed over the next 50 years for tribal relocation efforts.
Biden administration officials announced the funding at the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Wednesday. There, officials also announced plans to establish a director of tribal climate change initiatives at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The director will lead an assessment of tribal climate change adaptations and launch an Alaska Tribal Climate Change Advisory Group.
Though it is unclear how long it will take to completely move Newtok and Napakiak, community members and officials say that the newly announced funds are a positive step toward relocation.
“The river is eroding a lot of land every year,” Boyle said of Newtok. “They just need a new place to live where they can be safe and healthy.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from Interior on its selection process for relocation funding.