Federal grant helps Newtok village relocate due to erosion of Ningliq River

Relocation efforts continue for what many consider America’s first climate refugees. Newtok, a community of over 300 people in Southwest Alaska, has been eroding into the Ningliq River for decades. This week the village received an almost million-dollar federal grant to help with its move.

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The new site won’t have a power grid, water treatment plant, or sewage lagoon for years. So buildings moved or constructed there must function independently.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will make 12 homes at the new village site operational off the grid. It’ll add systems for generating electricity, treating water, and disposing human waste.

Aaron Cooke is with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.Cooke is helping develop these systems.

“Those families 12 families will be pioneers,” Cooke said. “They’ll be living in kind of a pioneer existence at the new site.”

The new site Mertarvik sits across the Ningliq River, about 12 miles from the current village. Cooke says a handful of people already live at Mertarvik during the summer.

“In that way the pioneer living is really not so different than the existing tradition of fish camp,” Cooke said. “You’ve got a place you occupy seasonally, and it’s got the things you need to live.”

Cooke has been working with the Newtok tribe for eight years on relocation efforts. In that time he says he’s seen whole football field sized expanses of land fall into the water.

Tom John, Newtok Tribal Administrator, lives in the village.

“I’m pretty sure the erosion is continuing as I’m speaking right now,” John said.

John says 72 buildings stand in the current village. Most are houses. The tribe already has another grant to move the 12 homes from the old site to the new that will receive the pioneering systems. Two years ago an engineer picked these homes as structurally sound enough to move. But John says now things have changed.

“Some buildings the screws or nails are coming out due to ground shifting in winter and summer,” John said.

The houses that relocate will do so next summer. But John says the people living in the houses might not move with them.

“They’ll need a store to buy their grub,” John said. “Students have to attend school. It’s still in a planning process. We have to deal with what we cannot see during these relocation efforts.”

Families might not want to split from their extended families or their community. If they want to stay at the old site, they’ll have to find homes to stay in amid shrinking housing. Like John says, there’s still a lot to work out.

All the while state and federal agencies are monitoring what’s happening in Newtok.

Lee Jones is with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which issued the grant for the pioneering systems. Jones says as climate change continues to threaten coastal communities, more groups are looking to the village as a model for relocation.

“Even though the whole world may never have heard of Newtok, in some sense, the whole world is watching,” Jones said.

This summer the tribe will reinforce the roads at the new site to make the move possible and learn how to build energy efficient houses.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.