Napakiak needs a new school. The Kuskokwim River is less than 200 feet from the current building and the question is when, not if, the water will overtake the ground beneath it. The current school is too big and too old to move. In this third story in a series on the threat posed by increased erosion caused by climate change, KYUK brings us a report on the limited funding options for reconstructing a school in rural Alaska.
When asked why the river is as close as it is to the school without any funding in place to design or build a replacement facility, Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Dan Walker said, “I think it comes down to priorities across the board.”
Those priorities, he says, belong to both the school district and to the state government.
“It’s not like we’re just now applying for funding for Napakiak," said Walker.
Napakiak sits in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, and LKSD has been applying for funding to construct another school in the community for a couple of years. In that time, the erosion at Napakiak has accelerated. However, only the top projects across the state receive money in the state capital budget. The rest of the projects wait and wait for years, hoping to slowly inch up the list as projects at the top are ticked off.
This method can work when a problem is able to be monitored. It does not work when a school like Napakiak or Newtok, which is also in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, could be wiped off the map by a slow moving disaster that is speeding up with climatic warming.
“Time is ticking, and we don't have a lot of time before we have an emergency, frankly,” Walker said.
There is no emergency funding program in the state Department of Education for reconstructing a school, and Napakiak is not high on the regular funding list; neither is Newtok. The state released its initial school funding priorities in November, and LKSD has chosen not to appeal the rankings. Napakiak is way down at number seven on that list. Newtok is number six.
On top of them sits more than $108 million worth of projects. This fiscal year, the legislature set aside only $36 million for rural schools. Thirty-six million dollars is what it would cost to build a new school in Napakiak.
Designing and constructing a school takes years. At the current funding rate, it will take more than four years just for Napakiak to receive state funding to begin the process. By then, the river will likely have overtaken the school, and there are no buildings in Napakiak large enough to hold classes.
When asked what the contingency plan would be to continue classes if the river reaches the school, Walker said, “Well, first of all we will be monitoring it quite closely. Typically, what would happen is we would move some portable classrooms into the community.”
There are other problems. Between the river and the school sit fuel tanks. The 10 giant yellow tanks tower over the school and can hold up to 140,000 gallons of fuel. The tanks would need to be moved and the surrounding soil decontaminated before the water reaches it to prevent a major environmental and public health disaster. The river is currently frozen in place just over 150 feet away, and spring break up is only months away. Farther back, the school’s sewage lagoon would also need to be closed before the river moves in.
Currently, Superintendent Walker says, the school district has not decided how close the river would have to get before the school shuts down.
“We’ll probably be asking the state, engineers, and architects to help us figure that out,” he explained.
On the funding application, there’s a box asking if the situation is an emergency. The Lower Kuskokwim School District has checked the box, “yes.” A line below it underscores the stakes. It reads: “as the river moves closer, the likelihood of a child ending up in the water also increases.”
In the coming months, Superintendent Walker expects to spend a lot of time talking to lawmakers in Juneau and reaching out to federal funders. How the state deals with Napakiak could set a pattern for how it deals with similar climate change disasters in the future.
This story is part three in a four-part series on erosion in Napakiak.