For some Alaska villages, climate change means they may have to move

The Kanektok River is eroding large chunks of bank and land from Quinhagak. (Photo by Krysti Shallenberger/KYUK)

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 grew up in Quinhagak and is the natural resource director for the tribe. She’s seen the changes from erosion her whole life: The house where she grew up is partially 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.

“This is supposed to be sitting on gravel,” he said, pointing out the multipurpose building where the washeteria and health clinic are located. “See the concrete? There’s a gap underneath.”

A cloudy day in Quinhagak. (Photo by Adrian Wagner/KYUK)
A cloudy day in Quinhagak. (Photo by Adrian Wagner/KYUK)

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 Ferdinand Cleveland said that they aren’t working because the ground is warming too fast.

He pointed out the cracks that lace the building’s walls.

“You can see, it’s evident that the cracks (are) all over. You see the outside part of the building. The concrete is sinking, and the drywall is cracking. It’s affecting our phone lines. We’ve already had some phone lines disconnected,” he said.

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

The sewer lagoon sits close to the ocean. A fence around the lagoon is roughly 200 feet from the edge of the beach. Ferdinand Cleveland said 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, like 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 Cleveland and Ferdinand Cleveland believe it’s clear that Quinhagak has to move. Warren Jones, the president of the village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., agrees.

Warren Jones, the CEO of Qanirtuuq Inc., surveys Quinhagak’s defunct processing plant. (Photo by Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK)
Warren Jones of Qanirtuuq Inc. (Photo by Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK)

“I think it’s time to start preparing. It’s coming. There’s no (other) way about it,” Jones said. “We have to relocate to better ground, get these 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 Cleveland 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 Cleveland if the village is planning to build the new health clinic and move the lagoon first, or if they’ll wait until the entire town is ready to move. She said that they are still figuring out the answer.

“That’s a question of a lot of things here,” she said.

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

For now, the town is starting to plan its next steps: Jackie Cleveland met with the tribal council and Quinhagak residents to get feedback earlier in June.