From Newtok to Mertarvik: A Native Alaskan Tribal Village Relocation
Several tribal villages in Alaska are facing impending community-wide climate impacts of permafrost degradation, sea level rise, erosion, and flooding — which require immediate adaptation measures, including the potential of managed retreat. However, only one, the Village of Newtok, is in the process of actively relocating to a new site, Mertarvik, which was conveyed to Newtok through a federal land grant. The Newtok team — composed of federal, state, and local tribal representatives — is prioritizing the development of housing, roads, energy, and an evacuation center in the near-term. The project goal is to relocate everyone in Newtok to Mertarvik by 2023. The Newtok relocation has been funded by a patchwork of federal and state agencies for over 20 years. This case study can highlight one approach and ongoing lessons learned for state and local jurisdictions confronting larger-scale questions about managed retreat, and the process of transitioning entire communities to higher ground.
Several tribal communities in Alaska are facing imminent questions of adaptation, including managed retreat. At least four tribal villages - Kivalina, Newtok, Shaktoolik, and Shishmaref - have actively considered retreat. However only the Village of Newtok has actually voted to, and is in the process of, relocating to the new site of Mertarvik on Nelson Island, nine miles away. The native coastal Village of Newtok is a federally recognized tribe of 350 Yupik Eskimos that live on the Ninglick River on the Bering Sea. The tribe has already lost infrastructure to climate change impacts of flooding, erosion, and permafrost degradation, and could lose its potable water supply as early as 2019. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Newtok is eroding at a rate of 70-90 feet per year.1 A Government Accountability Office report identified Newtok as one of four Alaskan villages in imminent danger.2
Managed Retreat Examples
Transitioning from Newtok to Mertarvik
In November 2003, the U.S. conveyed 12,000 acres on Nelson Island to the Newtok Native Corporation for a new village.3 Newtok is prioritizing the development of housing, roads, energy, and an evacuation center in the near-term.4 As of December 2017, 11 homes, a barge landing, two community wells, and a road were constructed.5 The project goal is to relocate everyone in Newtok by 2023.6
Currently, there is no federal agency in charge of planning, coordinating, or administering funding for community-level relocations. In 2015, President Obama designated the Denali Commission as the lead to coordinate federal, state, and tribal resources to assist Alaskan communities adapting to climate change.7 The Denali Commission is an independent federal agency established in 1998 to oversee critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska, with an emphasis on the state’s most remote areas.
Alaska has several state agencies that aid and work with Native Alaskan Tribal communities to facilitate adaptation and relocation efforts, like in Newtok. Alaska’s Division of Community and Regional Affairs (DCRA) provides technical and planning assistance for villages considering retreat that could be replicated by other state or local governments. For instance, through the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program, DCRA has provided assistance to coastal communities threatened by flooding, storm surge, erosion, and permafrost thaw - threats that are worsening as temperatures increase and protective sea ice decreases. The program involves two steps: (1) a hazard impacts assessment, during which the state helps the community identify hazards and potential mitigation measures; and (2) a community planning process, during which the community receives funding and assistance to carry out one or more recommendations resulting from the impacts assessment. A number of assessment and planning efforts have been completed through the program, including a relocation site feasibility study for the Village of Shishmaref.
In 2006, the Newtok Village specifically requested that DCRA help with the relocation to Mertarvik. As a result, DRCA created the Newtok Planning Group (NPG), a coordinating body of federal, state, tribal, and nongovernmental representatives. Since 2006, NPG has met regularly and worked to leverage resources across agencies, obtain funding, and has developed a strategic plan and framework (e.g., Mertarvik Strategic Management Plan), among other items, to advance this process.
In addition, the Alaska Community Coastal Protection Project focuses on increasing community resilience to coastal hazards while protecting the natural coastal environment in three imminently threatened villages in Western Alaska (Kivalina, Shaktoolik, and Shishmaref). For each village, DCRA established an interagency planning work group, and provided funding to the communities for capacity-building and hiring of a coordinator. Each village received assistance from a contractor hired through the project grant to develop a Comprehensive Strategic Management Plan. The plans provide a framework for how the communities can achieve adaptation goals like relocation, among others. The plans were completed in 2016, but work continues within the communities through each village’s respective interagency planning work group.
The Newtok relocation has been funded by a patchwork of federal and state agencies over 20 years, including the State of Alaska, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Denali Commission, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In March 2018, FEMA awarded Newtok a $1.7-million grant, and the U.S. Congress appropriated $15 million to the Denali Commission for the village relocation.8 This $15 million was the largest amount of single-source funding ever received for the project, but will not be enough to relocate the entire community given that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the total costs of relocation at $130 million (in 2006; today, with inflation, $150 million).9 For Fiscal Year 2018, the Denali Commission proceeded with $22 million (combined funds allocated from the Denali Commission’s annual appropriations, FEMA, and a required state match of $2.5 million).10 With this money, the commission plans to install at least 13 houses at Mertarvik, which can then make way for infrastructure investments, such as roads and water and electrical services, for the houses.11 As of April 2018, village relocation efforts cost approximately $47 million total.12
As the Newtok example highlights, other state and local decisionmakers can consider the tradeoffs of long-term, phased relocations that necessitate planning, staff resources, and accounting for needs at both current, more vulnerable and new higher ground sites. Newtok planned to move approximately one-third of its 350 residents to Mertarvik in October 2019.13 New development at Mertarvik will be more resilient and updated compared to decades-old buildings, and failing critical infrastructure in Newtok, such as sanitation systems. For instance, new homes in Mertarvik will have highly efficient and resilient designs that can withstand Alaska’s harsh climate, as well as reliable power, and flushing toilets.14
It is important to note that the relocation effort is posing ongoing funding challenges for residents in Newtok, as well as for Mertarvik. Given that residents will move to Mertarvik in phases between 2019 and 2023, money is needed to repair and maintain buildings and infrastructure, like the water supply and diesel-powered electric grid, for those still living in Newtok. However, since the village voted to relocate, it can no longer receive capital funds for improvements to existing infrastructure.15 Federal, state, and tribal officials are trying to avoid unsafe living conditions in the interim that could force an emergency evacuation in lieu of a planned transition to Mertarvik.
- Village of Newtok, Alaska
- State of Alaska
- Case study
1. Newtok Village Council, Newtok to Mertarvik Relocation (Dec. 2017) (hard copy outreach brochure).
2. Gov. Accountability Office, Alaskan Native Villages: Most Are Affected by Flooding and Erosion, but Few Qualify for Federal Assistance (GAO-04-142) (Dec. 12, 2003), https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-04-142.
3. Pub. L. 108-129 (Nov. 17, 2003) (“To authorize the exchange of lands between an Alaskan Native Village Corporation and the Department of the Interior . . . .”), available at http://uscode.house.gov/statutes/pl/108/129.pdf.
4. Newtok Village Council, Newtok to Mertarvik Relocation (Dec. 2017) (hard copy outreach brochure).
6. Johanna Eurich, Newtok is on the Move, KYUK (Dec. 27, 2018), http://www.kyuk.org/post/newtok-move.
7. White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Fact Sheet: President Obama Announces New Investments to Combat Climate Change and Assist Remote Alaskan Communities (Sept. 2, 2015), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/02/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-new-investments-combat-climate.
8. Alex DeMarban, $15 million from feds a ‘dream come true’ as Alaska village plans for relocation, Anchorage Daily News (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/rural-alaska/2018/03/26/15-million-in-spending-bill-a-dream-come-true-as-alaska-village-plans-move/
10. Alex DeMarban, Federal agency commits $22 million to help erosion-threatened village move, Anchorage Daily News (Apr. 30, 2018), https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/rural-alaska/2018/04/29/federal-agency-commits-22-million-to-help-erosion-threatened-village-move/.
13. Geof Koss, ‘We cannot wait.’ Sinking Alaska village finds new home, E&E News (Sept. 4, 2019), https://www.eenews.net/climatewire/2019/09/04/stories/1061110713.