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Science and Environment

Napakiak Develops 'First Of Its Kind' 50-Year Plan For Erosion Response

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Max Neale
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Alasaka Native Tribal Health Consortium

During the summer of 2021, the village of Napakiak will continue work to move the homes and structures that are most threatened by river erosion. Napakiak has created a comprehensive 50-year plan to navigate the complicated process of relocating its community, which some say is the first of its kind. This could provide a blueprint for other communities threatened by climate change.

  

Napakiak is building a new subdivision located west of the existing village. This summer, Napakiak will begin building house pads there, preparing to move the homes most threatened by river erosion. By the summer of 2022, Napakiak hopes to have power connected to the new subdivision.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District will also be laying the foundation for a new school in Napakiak this summer. The current school has less than 100 feet of land separating it from the river, and at least half of that land is expected to further erode this year.

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

But Napakiak has a plan for how it will address these challenges. It’s a 173-page document called the Napakiak Managed Retreat Plan. The plan details how, over a 50 year period, the community will 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 and helps Napakiak and other communities all around Alaska respond to environmental threats. He explained how a plan like Napakiak’s is useful for communities managing environmental threats.

Neale said that any kind of massive relocation effort like 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 that there’s a challenge when a community like Napakiak asks an agency for money to build a road to a subdivision that 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 that the plan will show agencies how the projects they fund will fit into the bigger picture of moving the community to a safer location. Nelson said that 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 that after seeing Napakiak’s plan, the Army National Guard visited Napakiak to see how they could aid in the retreat effort.

Nelson said that communities that want more information about Napakiak’s managed retreat plan are welcome to call him at the city. Neale said that if any communities want technical assistance from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, they can call 907-729-4251.