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For Quinhagak, Climate Change Means They May Have To Move

Boats in Quinhagak
Krysti Shallenberger

In Western Alaska, accelerating erosion is forcing several villages to consider moving. In Quinhagak, a village on the Bering Sea, erosion is threatening the sewer lagoon and the building that houses its washeteria and health clinic. 

Jackie Cleveland points out the erosion near the town on the banks of the Kanektok River. 

Jackie grew up in Quinhagak and is the natural resource director for the tribe. She’s held the position for almost a year, but she’s seen the changes from erosion her whole life. She stops at the site of the house where she grew up. Some of it is underwater now.

"Growing up here, the land used to extend so far out here and we had this beautiful bed of different flowers; wildflowers that grew up everywhere. I miss that little wild garden we used to have," she said. 

Quinhagak is especially vulnerable to erosion. It’s surrounded by water, with the Kuskokwim Bay in front and the Arolik and Kanektok Rivers on either side.

Quinhagak has moved parts of the village before, including fish camps and some houses, but the erosion is getting worse and happening faster now because of climate change. Quinhagak’s sewer lagoon and the building that holds the washeteria and health clinic are experiencing the worst impacts. That makes it a public health problem, according to Ferdinand Cleveland, the tribal administrator for Quinhagak. He points out the multipurpose building where the washeteria and health clinic are located.

"This is supposed to be sitting on gravel. See the concrete? There’s a gap underneath," he said.

A 2012 report from the state listed the lagoon and the multipurpose building as top priorities for replacement or repair because of erosion and thawing permafrost. Nothing has changed eight years later. Thermosiphons, designed to keep the ground from thawing, were installed below the concrete foundation, but Cleveland says that they aren’t working because the ground is warming too fast. He points out the cracks that lace the walls.

"See, it’s evident that the cracks all over. See the outside part of the building; the concrete is sinking, and the drywall is cracking, and it’s affecting our phone lines. We had some phone lines that disconnected," Ferdinand said. 

Quinhagak has to construct a new building to hold the health clinic and move the washeteria, according to Ferdinand.

The sewer lagoon sits close to the ocean. We are standing on the edge of the beach, which is roughly 200 feet from the fence around the lagoon. Ferdinand says that he doesn’t know how they would close up the lagoon if the erosion causes the waste to leak into the ocean. The Kuskokwim Bay is an important food source.

Erosion threatens other infrastructure: the airstrip, the water treatment plant, and the water and sewer system for the entire village. The village got running water roughly eight years ago.

Jackie and Ferdinand say it’s clear that Quinhagak has to move. Warren Jones, the president of the village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., agrees. 

“I think it's time to start preparing. It’s coming, there's no way about it. We have to relocate to better ground, get this engineers out here with their certificates and say this is good land, even though our Elders already know what land to pick.”

But it’s expensive to move an entire village. Newtok is another coastal community north of Quinhagak. It will cost them more than $100 million to move.

Ferdinand has applied for a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to plan how to move and rebuild the lagoon. He estimates that that alone could cost $6 million. A new health clinic could cost about $2.5 million. 

KYUK asked Jackie if they are planning to build the new health clinic and move the lagoon first, or wait until the entire town is ready to move.

"That's a question of a lot of things here,” Jackie said. She says that they are still figuring out the answer. 

Ferdinand says that it’s more likely they will rebuild the lagoon and build a new building to house the health clinic, and then start to plan to relocate Quinhagak.

The town is starting to plan its next steps. Jackie met with the tribal council and Quinhagak residents to get feedback earlier in June.