Over the last month and a half, a decade-long project to move the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village of Newtok is finally beginning to take shape.
The new village site held a ribbon in Mertarvik, which means “a place for water.”
The new community is safely above the rising water, which threatens the village of Newtok.
A small group of Newtok residents gathered high up on the bluffs at the new site of the village in Mertarvik.
“It’s a safe land; it’s high … it’s beautiful,” said Albertina Charles, a lifelong Newtok resident who mentioned that she was thrilled to be there.
Located a 10 to 15 minute walk uphill from the newly extended boat harbor, five to six homes – three of which are currently occupied – a steam house, and foundational pilings for four new homes line the main avenue.
Construction here has focused on water infrastructure.
Recent additions to life in Mertarvik include on-site hot and cold running water from water tanks fed by two drilled wells, a bathroom with four showers and four toilets, three washers and three dryers, a boiler, and a 125 kilowatt generator — equivalent to the power that is currently in Newtok.
Still under construction is the Mertarvik Evacuation Center, which the community hopes to start using next year.
The two-room building is being built large enough to house 250 people, if need be. A little ways further up the hillside is the dining hall that Troy Welch from HC Contractors helped build.
“It’s gonna be a viable community, very viable. It’s gonna be the community center, the kitchen area,” Welch said. “I think it’s gonna be the heart of the community.”
Planners still are working to secure the rest of the funding for the building and much of the planned housing.
Though there is much more to be done, there has been progress.
It’s been six years since state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig was here.
He has been working on relocating Newtok for a decade.
“It was really great to see the rock pit open and see the progress on the road, because I can remember when we just wished we had a rock pit,” Hartig said. “There has been good progress.”
Hartig said that the commission’s ability to connect state and federal agencies has been crucial.
He also pointed out that the two wells that have been drilled will be able to use gravity to deliver the water, which will save on operating costs.
The biggest uncertainty threatening continued progress at Mertarvik is what kind of federal funding will be available.
In a boat headed back to the old village site, Bureau of Indian Affairs Acting Director Lynn Polacca said that Newtok is only one of many villages at risk from climate change.
The BIA is able to help fund roads, but does not have as much money available for housing, he said.
“Anything tied to transportation, that’s what we fund at the BIA,” Polacca said. “We’ve got limited funding for housing, but you know, we try to help out where we can.”
Charles is ready to be among the first to move to Mertarvik.
“I want to pioneer here in fall time. My daughter is scared for my grandchild,” Charles said. “She wanted me to take her with me so she can be safe here, but I want to be safe staying here ‘cause last year the water raised more than usual.”
With grey skies coming in, Charles remembers those fall storms, the high water levels that come with the rains, and the devastation that has come to a sinking land.