Newtok Planning Group

Newtok Village Relocation History

Part Two:  Early Efforts to Address Erosion

In the three decades that followed the community's settlement at Newtok, residents became increasingly aware that the north bank of the Ninglick River was rapidly losing ground. Concerned with the future well-being of the community, the (then) City of Newtok requested and received funding through the Alaska Legislature for an assessment of the erosion problem as well as an evaluation of alternatives for erosion control to protect several miles of the Ninglick River bank. In 1983, Woodward-Clyde Consultants was hired to prepare the Ninglick River Erosion Assessment.

As part of the erosion assessment, historical bank erosion rates were evaluated from aerial photographs dated 1957, 1974 and 1977 and from a site visit prior to ice breakup in May 1983. This evaluation determined that between June 1957 and May 1983, the north bank of the Ninglick River had eroded at an average annual rate of 19 to 88 feet and that if this process could not be slowed, community structures would be endangered within 25 to 30 years (2008-2013).

The conclusion of the erosion assessment was that providing full protection to stop the erosion process over the entire length of the Ninglick River bank would be prohibitively expensive. In an addendum to the study, Woodward Clyde concluded that “Relocating Newtok would likely be less expensive than trying to hold back the Ninglick River.”

The photos above show the extent of erosion over a thirteen year period. In the July 4, 1996 photo, the Ninglick River Bank has eroded up to the bend in the Newtok River. Source: Newtok Background for Relocation Report, ASCG. 

Early Relocation Planning

In 1994, the Newtok Traditional Council initiated a relocation planning process in response to the village’s progressing erosion problem. The Traditional Council analyzed six potential village relocation sites. The selected relocation site, located on the north end of Nelson Island, was within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The site, approximately nine miles southeast of Newtok, is called Mertarvik*, which in Yup’ik means “getting water from the spring”.

In 2000, the Newtok Traditional Council hired Arctic Slope Consulting Group (ASCG) to assist in the development of relocation plans through funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Three reports were prepared as a result of these early planning efforts:

  • Newtok Background for Relocation Report:

    This report provided background documentation to government agencies in order to justify the efforts of the village’s relocation to Nelson Island and to support requests for government assistance in this process. The report summarized the relocation options considered by the community, including relocation to one of the three existing Nelson Island villages, to Bethel, or to one of six potential new development sites in the region. The report also summarized the Newtok Traditional Council’s evaluation of each alternative and the selection of the Mertarvik site on the north of Nelson Island.

  • Preliminary Geotechnical Overview:

    The USACE performed a site reconnaissance to visually evaluate the surface and subsurface conditions at Mertarvik. The study concluded that based on visual evaluation; there were no geotechnical site conditions that would preclude Mertarvik from use as the area for relocation of the village of Newtok.

  • Newtok Transportation Plan:

    ASCG developed a preliminary transportation plan for the Mertarvik site through funding provided by the BIA Indian Reservation Roads Program. The purpose of this effort was to develop a land use map and transportation plan for the proposed relocation site with prioritized roads, justifications, and estimated costs as a guide for future community development studies.

As part of the relocation planning effort, ASCG prepared a Shoreline Erosion Map based on historic shorelines digitized from USGS topographic maps and digital aerial photos (below). It was found that average rates of erosion along the Ninglick River varied from 36 feet to over 83 feet per year upstream. The average rate of erosion occurring directly in front of the village between 1954 and 2003 was measured to be 68 feet per year. The loss to erosion has been continuous from the base year of 1954.

Click image to download shoreline erosion map.

Source:  ASCG (Click image to download shoreline erosion map.)

An Act of Congress: The Land Exchange

The community’s efforts to acquire land at the village’s selected relocation site ran concurrent with the early relocation planning efforts. Newtok’s village corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Newtok Native Corporation, took an active leadership role in the land transfer with support from the community.

In November, 1996, the Corporation passed a resolution authorizing the negotiation of a land exchange within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Immediately thereafter, negotiations began, and by December 1997, the Regional Director for the USFWS submitted an Intent to Exchange Agreement for a land exchange to Newtok Native Corporation.

Negotiations between the Corporation and USFWS ensued over the next several years. Land exchange efforts gained momentum when the Corporation enlisted the services of a lobbyist at the federal level. Soon thereafter, the Corporation was able to secure the support of the Alaska Congressional Delegation as well as Washington D.C. staff of the USFWS. With the assistance of legal council, Newtok Native Corporation negotiated the terms of the land transfer and drafted federal legislation. The Corporation assisted Congressman Young and Senators Stevens and Murkowski in obtaining the votes for enactment of the land exchange law. On November 17, 2003, United States Public Law 108-129 was signed into law.

Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton signs the land exchange legislation as (the late) Larry Charles, Chairman of the Newtok Native Corporation, looks on. Source: Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP. 

The Land Exchange Legislation. Source: Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP. 

Next - Part Three: Progressive Erosion Brings New Problems


Part One The Qaluyaarmiut: People of the Dip Net
Part Two Early Efforts to Address Erosion
Part Three Progressive Erosion Brings New Problems
Part Four The Newtok Planning Group
Part Five Mertarvik: Getting Water from the Spring
Part Six References

For more information contact:

Sally Russell Cox

Division of Community and Regional Affairs
Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 1640
Anchorage, AK 99501
Phone: (907) 269-4588 FAX: (907) 269-4066
Email:sally.cox@alaska.gov