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Newtok to Mertarvik

Dec 1, 2018Construction

The sun sets over Mertarvik, the location being developed for the relocation of the Newtok community.


Isaac Stone Simonelli

In October, the Yup’ik community of Newtok braced itself to lose four homes to rapid erosion as storms from the southeast removed dozens of feet of shoreline no longer protected by ice and permafrost due to climate change.

How an entire village is being evicted by climate change

During a three-day storm at the beginning of October, twenty feet of shoreline was lost, putting the closest homes within twenty-five feet of the Ningliq River.

“With these October storms and as the rate of erosion grows, the consensus feeling within the community is worried; those closest to the erosion feel the anxiety most, as they witness the effects on a day-to-day basis,” says Andrew John, the Newtok Village Tribal Administrator. “Nearly the entire community feels on edge. I know [I]have had a lot of sleepless nights.

“We as a community have no time for debate over climate change anymore. It’s here: we see it, live it, and currently with these storms that we are having right now, we feel the direct impacts of it.”

Since 1994 the village of about 400 people nestled between the Ningliq River and Newtok River has been working toward fleeing the slow-moving disaster zone, acquiring a new site, Mertarvik (on Nelson Island) in a land trade with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003.

Developing the new site, putting in basic modern infrastructure—running water, power, sewers—is an incredibly costly endeavor made even more difficult by the limited resources and commerce within the community.

“Newtok is an incredibly traditional Yup’ik subsistence community,” says Gavin Dixon, community development manager at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), which signed a resolution with the Newtok Village Council earlier this year to become the overall manager of the relocation project. “They spend a lot of time gathering their own food and taking care of themselves.”

There are few paying jobs in Newtok. Available local positions include commercial fishing, seasonal firefighting, and government jobs at the local health clinic, schools, and tribal government, Dixon explains.

Slow-moving Disaster

“There’s a limited economy, and that’s the case in most of these rural villages… Some villages have a big fishing industry or a local mine nearby or forestry or something that gives them a tax base,” Dixon says. “And Newtok doesn’t really have that. That makes it hard to fund a lot of these efforts. The village can’t save up the amount of money that’s needed to build all this infrastructure; they need the support.”

The Newtok shoreline is eroding at an average rate of seventy feet per year.


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“We as a community have no time for debate over climate change anymore. It’s here: we see it, live it, and currently with these storms that we are having right now, we feel the direct impacts of it.”

—Andrew John, Tribal Administrator, Newtok Village

With no single source of funding for the project, Newtok has needed to navigate various bureaucratic systems at the state and federal level to identify grants and other sources of funding for individual projects associated with the move. One grant through the Bureau of Indian Affairs helps to build a couple hundred feet of road per year, and a small grant from USDA Rural Development paid for the investigation into establishing a clean water source at the new site.

“The State of Alaska has been an early investor in the community through legislature and general obligation bonds. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, primarily through their 638 contracting program and their Tribal Transportation program, has been incredibly flexible and supportive in the relocation. And, then, the largest single funder has been the Denali Commission,” Dixon says.

Introduced by Congress in 1998, the Denali Commission is an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. One key aspect of funding coming to Newtok through the Denali Commission is the amount of flexibility there is in how it is used. Rather than tracking down grant money to do the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the power plant or any other single element of the village, the Denali Commission is able fund the EIS for the entire village site, increasing efficiency.

This year also saw a windfall of cash flowing into the project. The Denali Commission received an additional $15 million in the FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill for the development of Mertarvik. The Commission is combining these funds with $5 million of prior year funds and $3.5 million of match funding from the state, according to an ANTHC news release.

Last year, Village Relocation Coordinator Romy Cadiente said that the US Army Corps of Engineers had estimated that it would cost $80 million to $130 million to relocate key infrastructure.

Though the number sounds astronomical for a community of 372 people, Dixon points out that it makes a lot more sense when deferred maintenance and deferred investment in the community, which has seen very little development in the last fifteen years, are factored in. “If Newtok had not ever had the need to relocate, how much would they have received, as other villages have, to bring them up to modern standards that they’ve missed out on for the last fifteen years? How many millions of dollars has Newtok missed out on that their partner villages have seen?”

The lack of investment in the overcrowded community, as well as the permafrost melt—that is turning much of it into a swamp—is evident and taking a toll on residents already suffering from sleepless nights due to a severe lack of infrastructure.

“Newtok has no running water and sewer; they have honey buckets in everybody’s home, they don’t have any place to do laundry. Their power plant is probably in the worst condition of any power plant in rural Alaska. They’ve got boardwalks that are sinking into mud from the permafrost melting and the ground subsiding,” Dixon says. “They’ve got sixty-five houses and almost 400 people. The average square footage is 800 square feet. Do the math there: you have more than six people per house and single room houses with no running water and sewer.”

Between major flooding from the Newtok River and pools from melted permafrost, the village suffers from increasingly high rates of black mold.

“When it floods, the water gets into the residents’ homes and then it waterlogs the floor. Under the home, where it remains damp and cool, this becomes a perfect breeding ground for black mold—which is why Newtok has [a very high] incidence of influenza and respiratory ailments,” Cadiente says.

What to Move, What to Build

Dixon points out that given the condition of most of the small plywood houses, there is no reason to include them or the power plant in the relocation process.

“There are a few structures in Newtok that are worth relocating. For the most part we’re building minimal infrastructure at the new site to support people more than we are moving the infrastructure,” Dixon says.

Among those buildings deemed worth moving are about three houses built in the last ten to fifteen years, the health clinic, and the National Guard armory, which is rented out to the Newtok Village Council. However, moving these structures would require ice that is thick enough to support putting the buildings on skids and dragging them nine miles upriver to the new location—thicker ice than the area has seen in the last two years.

“In my younger years, where I stood in the community, I would look miles and miles away but never see the river’s edge. Today, if you look out from my home, the edge is really just a few steps away.”

—George Carl, Vice President, Newtok Village Council

At this point, those structures are considered bonuses rather than critical items. If the buildings aren’t moved, it will be necessary to establish a place to provide medical services, as well as somewhere for the tribal government to operate.

By the end of the year, eight homes in total are expected to be built and ready for occupation, Dixon says, noting that the village is using a “pioneering approach” for the move, which means residents will arrive in waves as infrastructure allows.

“They’re going over there next year without an airport, and they’re going over there without running water and sewer yet… They won’t have all the full infrastructure that would [meet] normal expectations, but they’re going over there in advance to make it happen, to make it real. And then we’ll slowly build up from there,” Dixon says.

The hope is that with residents putting down roots in the new location, Mertarvik will be classified as a permanent community, opening up traditional facets for funding infrastructure development.

The Newtok Village Council has decided that the residents who are to move first are those closest to the eroding shoreline of the Ningliq River.

“Second are the homes on the northern end of our village which experience the worst effects from flooding, our Elders, and [then] working our way towards those homes towards the center of our community, working from south to north, away from the eroding Ningliq River,” John says. The goal is to have a sixty-five-house village with basic infrastructure by December 2023, Dixon says. Ultimately, the hope is to have one hundred homes in the village to accommodate the growing population.

“We’re not looking to build a metropolis out there: mostly what we’re looking at is basic infrastructure. An airport, a school, a health clinic, a church, housing, and infrastructure/utilities to support all of those facilities,” Dixon says.

“The 2019 season is a big construction season for us, so we’re expecting to put in thirteen homes, a power plant, a bulk fuel facility, a water plant. We’re expecting to do some extra work to accommodate the school, [using] the Mertarvik evacuation center as the primary school house,” Dixon says. “We’re looking at likely expanding the construction camp. We’ll run power lines and roads to all those facilities that are being constructed.”

Traditional Land, Traditional Life

Though establishing basic utilities to improve quality of life is an important part of the relocation process, the subsistence lifestyle of the Newtok people played a significant role in the decision of where to relocate.

A subsistence map was drawn up early in the relocation process.

“Some things will be farther away and some things will be closer,” Dixon says. “The village hunts muskox in the winter, and muskox will be closer to the new village, and there’s more berry picking by the new village. There’s a lot more ground-based access to subsistence resources across Nelson Island.”

Inland water resources, such as pike, black fish, white fish, and a lot of the salmon the community traditionally harvests will also be closer. However, some ocean resources, such as halibut and seals, will be farther away.

“One of the reasons Newtok picked this site is because it is such a traditional site. It was part of their seasonal rotation of movement of tracking subsistence resources,” Dixon says.

Another boon for Mertarvik, which means “place to gather water from a spring,” is a year-round natural spring that comes from an aquifer on the island.

“There is a vast freshwater supply. Unfiltered, it is very cold and delicious. And that’s something we really need to sustain, not only the livelihood of these wonderful people but the health concerns,” Cadiente says.

A full battery of testing performed on the aquifer revealed that it doesn’t need to be treated prior to consumption, though it does have some secondary contamination of iron, which is not a health concern, Dixon says.

The site also avoids making the unforeseeable mistake made with regard to the original selection of Newtok.

“The new site still allows us to practice our traditional lifestyle and to stay together as a community. Erosion and moving is hard, but we are still together and still living on the land we have always lived on, as our ancestors have done before us.”

—Andrew John
Tribal Administrator, Newtok Village

“It’s known that there were two Elders in the past who selected the current site of Newtok. Back then, the land was high and solid… Those two Elders have since passed… and over years the land has definitely changed. Now, it’s marshy and soggy and the land is much lower in elevation than it used to be,” says George Carl, vice president of the Newtok Village Council. “In my younger years, where I stood in the community, I would look miles and miles away but never see the river’s edge. Today, if you look out from my home, the edge is really just a few steps away.”

Now, aware of at least some of the impacts of climate change on the Arctic, Mertarvik is being built on solid ground—Nelson Island is a volcanic island with limited, shallow permafrost.

“We can put real foundations out there, and not have to do expensive and hard engineering design for building on permafrost,” Dixon says. “Also, they have access to a rock quarry, so they can make rock right there.”

Flooding and melting permafrost have led to an environment where black mold thrives.


“With these October storms and as the rate of erosion grows, the consensus feeling within the community is worried; those closest to the erosion feel the anxiety most, as they witness the effects on a day-to-day basis… Nearly the entire community feels on edge. I know [I] have had a lot of sleepless nights.”

—Andrew John, Tribal Administrator, Newtok Village

The new site is located about thirty-five feet above the river, avoiding possible issues from flooding. Being located on a hill also allows for the community to be designed with a gravity-based sewer system, which is significantly cheaper than the alternatives.

Another feather in Mertarvik’s cap is access to a categorized wind resource.

“[For] the first stage we’re going to have a really small electric grid, and that’s really hard to manage with dispatchable renewables, like solar and wind. So they’re going to start with diesel, and the goal is to start to work in specifically wind,” as the grid grows and can accommodate fluctuating energy generation, Dixon says.

Newtok has been a well-publicized example of climate-change induced relocation, but it isn’t the only community facing this challenge and will not be the last.

“Newtok is lucky in that a lot of their traditional grounds include a place like this that has rock and clean water resources. Some communities that are facing similar challenges do not have such a clean place to go to,” Dixon says.

Cadiente says he worries about what will happen to other communities.

“What happens to the other thirty communities that are next in line, who see the progression of what this erosion, this climate change has does to their community?” he asks. “Not only that, but what about the people in the Lower 48 who are suffering from flooding, what happens to all of them?”

Lessons Learned and Shared

In many ways, the rapid erosion of the Newtok Village shoreline has put them at the forefront of the conversation about slow-moving disasters as the council attempts to find additional federal funds for the relocation through the Stafford Act, a “federal law designed to bring an orderly and systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens.”

However, that funding has not materialized for Newtok.

“There are certainly language limitations in the Stafford Act that have prevented FEMA from helping the tribal community, and there needs to be something done to address the fact that slow-moving disasters should be covered under the funding available,” explains Paul Charles, president of the Newtok Village Council.

Attempting to change the wording in the Stafford Act is just one of thousands of legal hurdles the Newtok Village Council is attempting to clear. And, with each attempt, lessons are being learned—and shared.

“Newtok is very concerned with how they can share everything they’re doing and help other villages that are facing the same problems,” Dixon says. “The biggest thing for Newtok is learning and sharing how can you access different funding: What are the rules out there? What are the steps you are going to undergo for a land exchange?”

And, at the heart of it all is the desire to preserve a culture and a way of life.

“Regardless of the move, our culture is the same, our traditional lands are the same. The new site still allows us to practice our traditional lifestyle and to stay together as a community. Erosion and moving is hard, but we are still together and still living on the land we have always lived on, as our ancestors have done before us,” John says.

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