Napakiak develops ‘first of its kind’ 50-year plan for erosion response

A man walks toward the camera on a gravel rod
Napakiak Managed Retreat Coordinator Walter Nelson in August 2019. Most of the land in this photo has since been lost to erosion. (Max Neale / Alasaka Native Tribal Health Consortium)

The Southwest Alaska village of Napakiak has created a comprehensive 50-year plan, which some describe as the first of its kind, to navigate the complex process of relocating the community. The plan could provide a blueprint for other communities threatened by climate change.

The community is taking immediate steps to deal with erosion. This summer, construction will begin on a new subdivision west of Napakiak, starting with house pads, where homes most threatened by river erosion can move. By the summer of 2022, Napakiak hopes the new subdivision can be connected to power.

And the Lower Kuskokwim School District is also laying the foundation for a new school this summer. The current one has less than 100 feet of land separating it from the river, at least half of which is expected to erode this year.

Within the next 10 years, Napakiak will have to build the new school and move 38 homes, the store, the multi-purpose building, the water plant, and other structures. Over the next 50 years, addressing Napakiak’s environmental threats is estimated to cost over $200 million. 

And that’s why Napakiak has a long-term plan to address its challenges. It’s a 173-page document called the Napakiak Managed Retreat Plan. The plan details how, over a 50-year period, the community can retreat or move back from the river to a safe and sustainable location. 

“This is the first plan of its kind in the state,” said Max Neale, who works at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium helping Napakiak and other communities all around Alaska respond to environmental threats.

Neale said any kind of massive relocation effort such as Napakiak’s requires a multitude of funding agencies. One grant might help build a few houses, another might help build a road — but Neale said there’s a challenge when a community like Napakiak requests funding to build a road to a subdivision which hasn’t been built yet. 

“Many different agencies have requirements that say, ‘Well, we don’t want to build a road to nowhere,’” Neale said. “So the plan also provides some assurances to agencies that say, ‘Well, this project is not building a road to nowhere. You’re building a road to a safe place, and we’re gonna build a power line, and we’re gonna move homes here, and this is going to be the center of our community in the future.’”

Napakiak’s Managed Retreat Coordinator Walter Nelson said the plan shows agencies how projects they fund fit into the big picture of shifting the community to a safer location. Nelson said Napakiak’s 173-page plan has attracted a lot of attention from around the state. 

“It’s going all over, and we’re getting calls: ‘How did you do this? How did you work this out?’” Nelson said.

The plan is also generating attention from potential partners. Nelson said after seeing Napakiak’s plan, the Army National Guard visited to see how they could aid in the retreat effort.

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