Few in Alaska have the expertise to move an entire village, but a process at work now getting Newtok nine miles downriver to Mertarvik is a proving ground for figuring it out.
The project is still massively expensive, now estimated to cost $100 million to $120 million, but it is about a quarter of initial guesses of as much as $400 million to move Newtok’s 350 people from their eroding village.
Two recent developments have kept the effort advancing. One is the completion of an environmental impact statement on April 19 for the layout of Mertarvik. With it is a plan for how the village will be designed including the airport, a drinking water lagoon, fuel storage tanks, housing, a school, clinic and stores.
The other addresses part of the funding conundrum. When Congress passed the omnibus budget in March, $15 million was added to the Denali Commission’s $15 million operating budget.
The money is to go to help villages harmed by climate change. Since President Obama’s visit to Alaska in 2015, the Denali Commission has been designated the federal go-to agency to handle all village relocations.
“But this was the first time we had the money to go with it,” said Jay Farmwald, the director of programs at the Denali Commission.
The new village site is located nine miles south of Newtok on Nelson Island. It’s out of the way of the tidal activity of the Ninglick River, which feeds into the Bering Sea and is susceptible to storm surges.
Newtok is surrounded by the Ninglick River on two sides. Though one year 300 feet of shore side slid away, the usual erosion rate is 70 feet per year.
In the past 20 years, houses built on pilings sunk to ground level as the erosion came in two ways: melting permafrost couldn’t hold them up any more and water flooded in.
A very real possibility is that Newtok residents may require evacuation before Mertarvik has services such as electricity and water available, said Romy Cadiente, a Newtok village relocation coordinator.
“It’s not so simple as planning a move at some date in the near future. There’s a lot of planning, a lot of planning,” Cadiente said. “We’ve been blessed with the team that we have to help facilitate this huge movement. We’re in the process in getting a facility and we have scenarios and contingencies in the event we can be ready and provide for the folks if we have to move right now.”
Newtok leaders say it’s important to stay together as a tribe in the face of advice that individual families should move away from their disappearing village lands.
“Back in 2004, or even before when Newtok decided to relocate, elders told us why you cannot move,” said Andy Patrick Sr., the president of the Newtok Traditional Council who was born in 1947. “When they first planned this, they offered to send us to Bethel or wherever, and divide us up. But the elders told us to stay as one. We are an independent tribe, one of the 229 federally recognized tribes. We need to stay together, not divided.”
The Denali Commission is focused on getting homes put in as its top priority, Farmwald said.
“We’re using all of the $15 million allocation to move Newtok,” Farmwald said. “Most of the money will be spent on new houses and services to the houses.”
An additional $5 million from the Denali’s budget also will go toward installing services at Mertarvik.
At least two other villages among an identified 31 are in emergency mode for needing to move due to climate change’s loss of permafrost and the resulting erosion biting away at their lands. But with Mertarvik, Farmwald said, “we are setting down a template to help the next villages.”
That template is currently a written plan that shows what the new village layout will be once completed. Villagers supplied their preferences for how public buildings should be grouped.
Costs so far were contained by partnerships. For example, rather than each agency conducting its own required survey work — geotechnical, topographical and environmental — the Denali Commission did it.
The geotechnical work cost the Denali Commission $450,000 to gather about 90 percent of the subsurface information needed to design Mertarvik infrastructure, including the airport, said Don Antrobus, an engineer in the U.S. Public Health Service who is on loan to the Denali Commission.
“There are significant economies of scale if the money is released in one pot. Every project needs geotechnical, subsurface surveys,” he said. “It’s very expensive to mobilize the equipment. When you do a larger geotech investigation for the airport, road, school, landfill, lagoon — you only pay that cost once. If you do it project by project, then each agency needs to do its own geotechnical work and that’s expensive.”
Now the Department of Transportation won’t have to do a separate “mobilization,” for example, Antrobus said.
Mobilization is expensive in itself, meaning getting a drilling rig, equipment and crews on the ground, plus supplying food and housing for them while they do the survey work.
Further cost savings came when surplus barracks from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson were donated last December. The pre-fabricated, single-story barracks are to be taken apart this spring and are expected to be barged to Mertarvik next summer. But the cost to barge and assemble them there is $4.5 million, of which Denali Commission is paying the bulk.
The estimated cost is $450,000 each for newly constructed HUD, or Housing and Urban Development, homes.
The barracks, once reconfigured into homes, will supply 13 houses, Antrobus said, at an average cost of $346,000 each.
“It’s not free. But it’s about 75 percent of what new construction costs,” he said.
The buildings are in good shape and together with the seven already built, there will be 21 homes by the end of summer 2019, if all goes as planned. More than 80 homes will be needed.
Another partnership also has been a major contributing factor in saving time and money that resulted in the first road built at Mertarvik.
The Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, program performed the road building exercise in 2009 and returned each year through 2013 (except 2012) to build a bunk and kitchen camp for workers and storage buildings, as well as the site work for the Mertarvik Evacuation Center. They also opened a rock quarry that was used to build the road and will be used in foundation work for buildings.
The IRT provides military personnel with real-world training opportunities on projects that benefit communities. At the time, the program manager, Lt. Col. William Morgan said the relocation effort of the village of Newtok provided a winning situation for both Newtok and the military.
“To do something so far away from home, up in an Alaskan tundra that’s difficult to get to by boat or by air — this is exactly the type of challenge that will enhance our ability to go to war in the future, to do other engineering projects in remote locations,” he said.
Their work resulted in a permanent road built to a white-rock quarry that will serve multiple construction needs as infrastructure and housing go in.
When the IRT troops left, the road-building equipment they brought with them was left at Mertarvik for future work. The equipment belongs to the Tribe and was paid for by a grant.
“That’s another opportunity for economy of scale,” Antrobus said. “If projects are done project-by-project or agency by agency, each brings equipment and when he leaves he takes it with him.”
The IRT work amounted to a donation to the village, Antrobus said. The military transported, housed and fed more than 20 troops while they worked.
When finished, the Mertarvik Access Road was built with gravel topped by polyethylene road mats, a technology used by oil companies on Alaska’s North Slope for road development on tundra. The 1,000-pound 8-by-14 foot polyethylene mats interlock to form a strong, stable and uniform surface over tundra. They cut down on dust and can be moved. Funding for the road came from the Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Department of Commerce and Economic Development provided the majority funding and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers provided $430,000 for a $7.5 million Mertarvik Evacuation Center, which is currently a platform on pilings.
“This summer we will put on an exterior shell and plumbing and mechanicals,” Antrobus said.
The MEC will be able to house Newtok residents should they need an emergency evacuation from their village anytime soon. It will also double as space for a clinic or a temporary classroom for kids.
Currently there are seven homes built at Mertarvik. One is a prototype house designed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and funded by a BIA grant. The house is extremely energy efficient and moveable, since it was built on a skiddable foundation that can be towed across ice or tundra.
All together, figuring out how to put new infrastructure in place without too many agencies stepping over each other is proving more economical, Antrobus said.
“Over time, there have been some really astronomical cost predictions for this move, he said. “It has not cost anywhere near that.”
In total, $47 million has been committed or spent on the move, including the projects completed to date.
Back in Newtok
Federal and state agencies continue to fund projects in Newtok. A certain number of people will need to live there for another five or 10 years, Antrobus said.
One is an upgrade on the Newtok airport runway by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The contract is for $1.8 million to resurface it, said spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.
Another is a water treatment plant improvement by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Water from a lagoon source has been threatened in the flooding, Antrobus said. Newtok remains one of the villages on “honey buckets.”
“One was a project that had funding to identify a new water source for Newtok. That was implemented last summer before we went into the winter,” Antrobus said. “There’s other money available for Newtok for improvement to the water treatment plant to heat it and keep it from freezing. Those projects will be done.”
In the meantime, Newtok residents have gone through a lot of water insecurity issues. A $580,000 ANTHC project last year and this year paid for relocating the water supply plant to keep it safe from saltwater intrusion, said Gavin Dixon, an ANTHC engineer. The work is meant to help ensure water availability until the move.
They are still on honey bucket style sewage. The only public place to fill water buckets and wash clothing wasn’t functioning properly and so the ANTHC work this summer will restore it to working order, Dixon said. “There’s been a lot of sickness from the water situation. It’s a public health solution to stabilize the village until they move.”
It’s not a waste of money, Antrobus added, though the goal is to abandon the village as soon as possible.
“Several hundred people will be living in Newtok for a period of time. It costs $100 million to $120 million to move and we don’t have anywhere near that,” he said.
Even so, there isn’t much that can be moved when the big day to do it finally comes, Antrobus said.
Of the 70-some homes at Newtok, “most are in poor or very poor condition.”
“None of the homes can be moved,” Farmwald said.
The design of the Newtok school was a modular building that can come apart in big wall panels, Antrobus said.
“There’s the potential to take it down and transport it across the river and reassemble them. There’s been an analysis about what it would cost and it is not less than new construction,” he said.
The Denali Commission and Newtok Planning Group are still exploring what other public buildings might be moved, and the means and methods to get them across the river on the ice.
The problem is not being able to predict whether the river will freeze hard and deep enough to skid heavy buildings across it, Antrobus said.
“The river freezing hasn’t been reliable,” he said. “Last year it did freeze, but late in season. The previous year it didn’t freeze.”
Such is the conundrum of climate change, said Cadiente.
“It’s happening faster than we can move,” the village relocation coordinator said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]