GAO Reports Minimal Progress in RelocatingAlaska Native Villages Threatened by Erosion

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Despite ongoing erosion that is exacerbated by a warming climate, little progress has been made in the efforts to partially or completely relocate a dozen Alaska Native villages, the Government Accountability Office said in a report issued June 3.
Of the more than 200 Native villages in Alaska, most are being affected by flooding and erosion that is linked, at least in part, to rapid climate change in the far north, according to the report, Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion .
The report cited initial studies completed in 2003. Of the 31 villages considered most threatened by erosion, 12 have decided to move in their entirety or partially, GAO said.
But only Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo village on the banks of the eroding Ninglick River, has made “significant progress” toward the goal of moving the community. Relocation plans there date back to 1994; two years later, villagers selected a relocation site known as Mertarvik, about nine miles southeast of the existing village.
Since then, the efforts led by the village council have resulted in completion of a community layout plan, a layout of water and sewer services, completion of geotechnical studies, completion of a housing market survey to determine community needs, and the construction of three new homes that will be hauled from a temporary site to the new village. The council's efforts have also resulted in preliminary design or background studies for a new airport, barge ramp, dock and staging area, and evacuation center and access road at the new site.
Three other villages with dire erosion problems that probably will need to move in their entirety—the Inupiat Eskimo communities of Shishmaref, Shaktoolik and Kivalina—have yet to select new community sites and are “significantly behind Newtok in their efforts to relocate,” the report said.
Lack of Federal Agency Coordination.
Villages' attempts to move have been hindered by the fact that, while the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and the governor's office are managing erosion aid, there is no single federal agency coordinating the efforts, the report said.
Another problem is the inability, under terms of federal law, for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to issue Community Development Block Grants to Native villages in unincorporated parts of Alaska. Federal law does not recognize such villages as eligible for the grants, the report said.
GAO also recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which on April 15 issued its Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment report, do a similar assessment of flood risks in the villages.
The corps was tasked by Congress to assess only erosion problems, but flooding problems are also related to climate changes that have accelerated erosion, GAO said. Because the corps has not specifically studied flooding issues in the villages, “the status of the threat to many villages cannot be properly taken into account by federal and state officials when planning and prioritizing assistance to villages, thereby creating the potential that villages may not receive the assistance they need due to a lack of complete information for decision makers,” the report said.
The climate problems that have exacerbated villagers' problems include thawing permafrost, vanishing sea ice, and increased impact from storm waves or water levels, the GAO report said.
Murkowski Cites Increased Urgency.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement that she hoped to make some legislative progress to help address the problems cited by the GAO.
“The GAO report highlights what we know, that coastal erosion and flooding are increasing in Alaska Native villages and we have limited federal programs and funds to assist. Since the last full assessment in 2003, the impacts from climate change have increased and the urgency for State and Federal efforts to identify and mitigate these impacts have increased,” Murkowski said.
“I agree with the GAO that this shortcoming and lack of coordination is an impediment. I am committed to the process of identifying or creating a lead Federal entity and will work to secure funding to better help Alaskan villages deal with these threats,” she said.

By:  Yereth Rosen