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US Department of the Interior puts $40M toward community relocation efforts for Newtok and Napakiak

Katie Basile
Drake Charles and Jeffrey Charles Jr. catch fish along the banks of Baird Inlet on July 20, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. Residents of Newtok are slowly relocating to Mertarvik and will receive $25 million from the Interior Department toward that effort.

The U.S Department of the Interior is putting $75 million toward community relocation efforts for three U.S. tribes struggling with the consequences of a changing climate.

Among the recipients is Newtok, where the Ninglick River has edged closer and closer to the community’s school as the frozen ground under the community melts away. Most of Newtok's infrastructure is sinking. The story has garnered national attention for years.

About 150 people live at a new village site, Mertarvik, roughly 9 miles upriver. But housing there is limited, as is infrastructure, so another 200 people remain in Newtok.

“We’ve never really done anything like this before in this country, particularly for tribes,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. He said that the funding is meant to help Newtok continue the relocation process. In turn, the Interior Department aims to capitalize on some of the progress to develop a blueprint for the federal government’s future response to climate change.

“We want to make sure that we are gaining experience on the federal side of things, working with tribes to do climate relocation work,” Newland said.

The Newtok community started discussing relocation more than 20 years ago, but the process has been complicated by local politics and disagreements between local, state, and federal governments as conditions have worsened.

In the summer months, the slough that separates Newtok from its garbage dump is too shallow for a boat and the mud is too thick to traverse, so there’s nowhere to dispose of garbage. Ongoing permafrost degradation has rendered the sewage lagoon useless, so there’s no official place to dispose of raw sewage. There’s also no running water, other than at the school, and much of Newtok’s housing is unstable and outdated.

Stanley Thom grew up in Newtok and has been around for much of the relocation process. While he appreciates this new infusion of cash, he said that it will take more than $25 million dollars to build out what’s needed in Mertarvik.

“You know the airport is done, that’s very important, and now we need a clinic,” Thom said. “It’s very important for the tribal community. And we need to have a water source, a water point. Those are very important parts of the building structures in order to keep the community going,” he said.

Alongside Newtok, Napakiak will also get $15 million from the Interior Department. Most of the village’s critical infrastructure there is threatened by erosion along the Kuskokwim river bank. The Quinault Nation in Washington state also qualified for the funding.

Newland said that the Interior Department weighed a lot of factors in deciding who got the money. “We evaluated a number of communities that have gone through some of our climate funding programs before, and we weighted a number of different factors like readiness, need, existing plans, as well as our ability to glean lessons learned,” he said.

The tribes will also receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has otherwise been limited in what it can do with respect to climate change response in the past. Eight other tribes across the U.S. will share $40 million to assist in planning for climate change mitigation.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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