Are Agencies Prepared for Effects of Climate Change?

As Alaskans grapple with the effects of a warming planet, they look to federal and state agencies to help with problems that are too big for an individual or even a community to tackle. But it’s not clear if statutes and regulations, and agency fundingare up to the task.

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Dozens of agencies are working with communities trying to recover from disasters,rebuild infrastructureprotect against further damage, or relocate. But James Blowe, of Alukanuk, says agency funds often come with impractical or counterproductive requirements, and it can be hard to reach people.

“Getting people to talk with you is almost impossible,” said Blowe. “They either, ‘You gotta talk to this person,’ or ‘We don’t know what we should do,’ or ‘You need to call the Corps of Engineers,’ and they said’s it’s out of their hands. It’s just a big runaround.”

Civil Project Management Chief Bruce Sexauer, in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska office, says the Corps does have to work within certain limits – such as funding levels set by Congress. It has to evaluate projects to see that costs don’t exceed benefits. And it requires matching funding.

“A local community still needs to supply 35% of the cost,” said Sexauer. “So a $10 million project, that’s a significantly large project for a small community to be able to handle.”

Eugene Asicksick is the former mayor and current vice-mayor of Shaktoolik, a village of 230 people who live on a spit with Norton Sound on one side and the Shaktoolik River on the other. He says over the years, federal and state agencies provided studies with valuable information, and funds for some projects but not enough money for the big steps that seemed necessary. Asicksick says as the years passed, storms worsened and eventually one hurled drift logs too close to peoples’ homes.

“We encountered storms in 2009, 2011, and 2013,” said Asicksick. “And 2013’s storm was the first time the driftwood has crested over to where the houses were built.”

Terry Johnson, a Marine Advisory Program agent with the University of Alaska, says he and consultant Glenn Gray began working with Shaktoolik in 2011 to develop a climate change adaptation strategy. Johnson says the village had formed a committee with two representatives each of the tribe, the city, and the village corporation, and held open meetings during the planning process. He says community priorities were clear:  to save lives in the event of inundation, and to protect property such as water storage and fuel tanks.

“What we did is listen to what the committee told us, and then we set out to find information that would help them decide what the best approaches were,” said Johnson. “And we kind of packaged that information. And we drafted what we called a decision document, which was really just a set of descriptions of the problem, descriptions of potential solutions to the problem, and then a set of questions, ‘do you want to take this approach, yes or no.’”

Asicksick says village leaders came to a decision. “We decided after several planning,” said Asicksick. “There was talks of evacuation, evacuation building, relocating, that all of them were pretty much cost-prohibitive because of the cost-benefit ratio requirement to get any federal dollars.”

Asicksick says the village received $620,000 from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And the local tribe, city, and village corporation pitched in with fuel, heavy equipment, and gravel to forge ahead with a project to protect themselves.

Now we have a berm about a mile and a half long in front of the village and the gravel berm is about 8 to 10 feet high in places and 10 to 12 feet wide,” said Asicksick.

Asicksick says when it can afford to, the village will plant vegetation on the berm to strengthen it, and will soon be working with agencies to restore an area where erosion has brought the sea to within a hundred feet of the runway.