Newtok is a Native Alaskan village that is being forced to relocate as the river and ocean erode its shorelines. The erosion rates have been exacerbated by thawing permafrost, declining sea ice protection, increased storm surge exposure, and warming temperatures. In 1994, Newtok was one of the first villages to consider relocating to a new, less vulnerable site. In 2003, Newtok negotiated a land exchange agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is now in the process of moving forward with plans to relocate their entire population to a new site. Home construction is expected to begin as early as 2011. In sum, moving Newtok to its new location will cost an estimated $80-130 million, about $2 million per household. Relocation plans have been delayed for a variety of reasons, including funding constraints.
Newtok is located on the Ninglick River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region. It is north of Nelson Island and 94 miles northwest of Bethel. Indigenous populations have inhabited Newtok for at least 2,000 years; they are known as the Qaluyaarmiut people. The Qaluyaarmiut people are avid fishermen and live a traditional Yup’ik Eskimo subsistence lifestyle.
The village’s proximity to the shoreline is proving to be hazardous; recent erosion rates in Newtok have averaged 90 feet per year and the community experienced major floods in September 2005 and February 2006. A shoreline erosion map based on historic shorelines in maps and aerial photos indicates that the Ninglick River has eroded from 36 to 83 feet per year upstream; the average rate of erosion occurring near Newtok from 1954 to 2003 was measured to be 68 feet per year. A 1983 study found that the main variables affecting erosion of the bank of the Ninglick River include a combination of temperature changes, wave action, and river currents. As a result, fall storms have caused waters to surge through the Ninglick River and inundate the town of Newtok. Also, the increased erosion rate altered the hydrology of the river from quick moving to more slough-like. Historically, Newtok discharged their untreated sewage into the Ninglick River but with the change in hydrology, the disposed waste had no place to go, causing a public health hazard.
Newtok is also being threatened by thawing permafrost and decreased sea ice that once protected the coastal village against wave erosion. As such, the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet Immediate Action Workgroup (IWA) focused part of its work on Newtok. In 2007, the IWA recommended that a suite of emergency response plans be developed to identify the most immediate and cost-effective ways to reduce the community’s vulnerability. These emergency response measures have been very important for Newtok as community members wait for the relocation process to finish. In 2008, Newtok’s local hazard mitigation plan was completed; the community’s emergency operations plan and community evacuation plan is currently under development.
In 1994, the Newtok Traditional Council began to consider relocating the village due to progressing erosion problems. The Council selected a location on the north end of Nelson Island called Mertarvik; it is a site that was managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Three reports were prepared during the early planning efforts: Newtok Background for Relocation Report, Preliminary Geotechnical Overview, and the Newtok Transportation Plan.
In 1996, the Newtok Native Corporation authorized the negotiation of a land exchange within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge with the Fish and Wildlife Service. By 2003, after much lobbying and legal council, the Service agreed to exchange land with the Newtok Native Corporation.
In 2006, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development's Division of Community Advocacy began to work with the Newtok Native Corporation to facilitate the relocation of Newtok to the Mertarvik site. First, they attained an $800,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration to build a multi-use marine support facility (barge ramp, dock and staging area); construction began in 2008. The Newtok Traditional Council was awarded a grant from the Denali Commission to develop a community, water, and sewage layout plan for the new village site. In sum, moving Newtok to its new location will cost an estimated $80-130 million, about $2 million per household.
Project Outcomes and Conclusions
In June 2011, the Newtok Traditional Council approved the following guiding principles for the Mertarvik relocation:
- To remain a distinct, unique community – our own community
- To stay focused on our vision by taking small steps forward each day
- To make decisions openly and as a community and look to elders for guidance
- To build a healthy future for our youth
- Our voice comes first – we have first and final say in making decisions and defining priorities
- To share with and learn from our partners
- No matter how long it takes, we will work together to provide support to our people in both Mertarvik and Newtok
- Development should:
- Reflect our cultural traditions
- Nurture our spiritual and physical well-being
- Respect and enhance the environment
- Be designed with local input from start to finish
- Be affordable for our people
- Hire community members first
- Use what we have first and use available funds wisely
- To look for projects that build on our talents and strengthen our economy
The Newtok Planning Group is working with the village to develop a strategic relocation management plan. In 2012, the Mertarvik Waterfront Development Study was completed, including engineering surveys and designs to support relocation planning and implementation. In the meantime, the Innovative Readiness Training Program (IRTP) has committed to the Newtok relocation efforts by providing labor and transportation capabilities. In 2010, the IRTP constructed an access road from the barge landing to the new village site, and in 2011, they started working on an evacuation shelter to protect the current village and community members from flooding. As of August 2013, construction of the evacuation shelter and relocation efforts have been halted due to funding constraints as well as internal political disputes. Part of the funding issue, according to local experts, is that neither the state nor federal government acknowledge that climate change qualifies for disaster relief funds.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified three other coastal villages in Alaska that may need fast-paced relocations to escape erosion and melting permafrost; another 22 coastal communities will likely require some degree of immediate attention. At least 12 Native Alaskan villages have elected to explore relocation as a viable alternative as their towns are swallowed by the sea.
Feifel, K. & Gregg, R. M. (2010). Relocating the Village of Newtok, Alaska due to Coastal Erosion [Case study on a project of the Newtok Planning Group]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/relocating-village-newtok-alaska-due-coastal-erosion (Last updated October 2013)