Severe fall and winter storms are taking their toll on the communities of the North Slope and are taking center stage in ongoing discussions between the borough and the federal government.
"Barrow is just one storm away from a major catastrophe," said John Boyle, director of government and external affairs for the North Slope Borough. "Not only could it have catastrophic impacts on the community of Barrow itself, it could also have impacts on the rest of the North Slope communities that rely on Barrow as a hub."
Boyle was speaking from Washington, D.C., where he'd traveled this week to engage in talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about seeking funding to build a seawall around the community and mitigate future effects of storm surges that put the village's infrastructure at risk.
"It's a huge pressing issue and like everything else in the Arctic, it's very expensive to do anything," Boyle said. "If a gallon of milk costs $10, you can imagine that trying to build a seawall in Barrow is going to cost a lot more than building one in San Diego, or somewhere else. It's a big issue and it's one that the federal government needs to be involved in, especially in our state's current fiscal environment."
Barrow relies on one freshwater lagoon to supply its potable water and last August, during a storm, saltwater came dangerously close to contaminating the supply for the community.
"It wasn't a particularly severe storm as far as overall intensity but it just so happened that the prevailing wind pattern created a situation where the wind, instead of blowing parallel with the coast, was blowing perpendicular with the coast. So, what we saw was a pretty extensive coastal flooding event," Boyle said.
The borough's freshwater source is linked to two other lagoons which are salty, or brackish. Those lagoons are separated from the Arctic Ocean by a spit of land. Every year, the borough constructs sand and gravel berms to provide a barrier. Behind the berm is the road that links Barrowside to Browerville.
"The water started to flood into the first saltwater lagoon and raised the overall level of that lagoon, which then spilled into the second salty lagoon. As that filled up, it came within about a foot and a half of breaching the freshwater lagoon," Boyle said. "In other words, the whole community's freshwater source is at risk from coastal flooding. Even without a major storm, if the right kind of storm comes up with winds coming from the right direction, it can create the situation where our freshwater supply can become compromised."
During the storm, the borough worked in conjunction with the Barrow Utilities and Electric Co-op to prevent what damage they could.
"We were meeting regularly and assessing the storm and its severity and the action needed to minimize the damage in the community. So, that was certainly one of the items we were looking at then," said Allen Nesteby, operations superintendent and acting general manager for the co-op.
The typical flow for the lagoon system was interrupted by a plugged dyke, which compounded the problem.
"What typically drains into the ocean, the reverse was taking place; the ocean was draining into the lagoons," Nesteby said.
The borough has been aware of the risks posed by coastal flooding for many years. In the 1960s a major storm flooded Barrow and destroyed many homes and buildings. However, because there wasn't as much infrastructure in place 50 years ago, the risks were not as high on a community level.
Then, 16 years ago, another damaging storm hit the village.
"At that time the borough operated a dredging machine that was dredging up sand and gravel in the ocean to replenish the beach areas and that storm actually ended up sinking the dredge because of the seas," Boyle said. "That kind of finished the borough's attempt to make active efforts to combat the coastal erosion that was occurring."
Under the current administration, erosion and flooding have once again become top priorities, he said.
In 2012, the borough first attempted to secure funding to build a seawall -- a protective barrier that could handle much larger storm surges and waves than the current berm system.
It engaged in talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a feasibility study, as the corps had already completed a coastal storm damage reduction technical report two years before, in which they outlined the issues and alternatives and costs for mitigation.
"The issue was, under the particular legal authority that the corps was evaluating these alternatives, they have to use National Economic Determination criteria. What the corps found is they didn't think the North Slope Borough had infrastructure worth protecting. In other words, they felt that constructing a seawall would cost more than it was worth to protect the infrastructure that was there," Boyle said. "So, when Mayor Charlotte Brower brought this to the forefront as something she thought was a priority, we looked at the corps' report and felt they had really severely underestimated the value of the infrastructure that we have."
It's imperative that the corps and other federal agencies are involved in the process, said Boyle, which is why the borough is now re-engaging with them in the hopes they'll re-evaluate the project.
Depending on the type of seawall that would need to be constructed, it could cost anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion to complete, he estimated.
The smaller or less complete the seawall, the more open it would be to breaches, and the cost is dependent on the scale of the project.
"That's an amount of money the borough is incapable of coming up with on its own," Boyle said. "If we were to even try to engage in a project of that size, we would be unable to do any other kind of capital project like build roads or schools, because every dollar that we would have would have to go into the seawall project."
The borough is hoping to find funding through a cost-sharing allocation with the corps. It would split the cost with the municipality contributing 35 percent and the corps pitching in the additional 65 percent.
When contacted by the Sounder, the corps was not able to provide an interview by deadline, but has agreed to an interview for a later story.
The freshwater lagoon is not the only piece of critical infrastructure that could be protected by a seawall. The community's water and sewer system is unlike that found in other Arctic communities like Kotzebue.
Whereas the majority of nearby villages rely on above-ground pipes, Barrow uses the utilidor system, an intricate network of heated underground tunnels through which the water and sewer lines run.
"In Barrow, back in the 1980s, when we were fortunate to have a lot of revenue coming in from Prudhoe Bay, we built this system so that instead of having the freeze-up problems and other issues you often see with above-ground water and sewer, the underground pipes and sewage aren't impacted by the severe winter cold," Boyle explained.
The system is serviced by pumping stations on the surface. The stations are made up of a utility building and a shaft that runs several feet down to the tunnels.
"If you had a scenario where multiple pump stations were inundated by coastal flooding and we had a lot of water get down into the system and we had freeze-up, the entire City of Barrow would be left without its running water and its sewer system. It would be a major catastrophe," he said.
In today's dollars, rebuilding the entire system would run the borough close to a billion dollars. If just one pump station was breached by seawater, it would likely cost about $25 million to repair.
"My point is that we don't believe the corps fairly or accurately valued the cost of the system or the actual costs associated with one of the pump stations potentially flooding," he said. "That's why we went back to the corps and said we thought they needed to look at the issues and hoped they could work with us and lay out what our options were."
The Alaska division of the corps has been working with the borough to outline what steps would need to be taken to re-evaluate the feasibility study and so far, communication has been very positive, according to Boyle.
"The local district has been very supportive," he said. "They hear our concerns and they are constrained like any other federal agency with funding and having multiple needs in a lot of different areas and we're really optimistic that by working together, we can come up with the solution for Barrow. We're really appreciative of all the help and support that they've given us so far."
In addition to the water systems that could be at risk, there are other infrastructure concerns tied to a lack of redundancy. At present, there is only one lagoon, one gas line and one electrical plant.
"Anything that interferes with our ability to produce electricity, our water source, or our fuel supply, which we generate with natural gas, what would happen if that was compromised to the community? It would be absolutely devastating," Nesteby said.
The borough is also keeping an eye on the landfill, currently filled with an estimated "tens of thousands of barrels of chemicals and solvents" left over from military work at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) site in the 1950s, Boyle said.
"They didn't really do a good job of containing while they were running the facilities and at the end, they kind of decided to bury it all at the landfill and that landfill sits right adjacent to the coast," Boyle said. "So, any kind of flooding event, water will penetrate the landfill and erode any kind of protective measures in place to kind of keep the waste where it's at. Our worry is that if the landfill gets breached, you could have a lot of toxic substances leaking out into the ocean. So, making sure that we have a seawall that protects the old landfill and areas like that as well is critically important."
With the borough currently evaluating their options, ongoing negotiations with the federal government and other potential funding sources could determine the future safety and security of the North Slope's hub community in light of climate change.
"The state and the municipalities just don't have the money to go at it alone," Boyle said. "We hope that the corps can work with us and we can get through their process in an expedited manner so we can start protecting the critical infrastructure that we have to stave off a major disaster."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.