Villages like Newtok, Shishmaref, and Kivalina have become well known for being on the front line of climate change, but many other communities are facing erosion and flooding issues. State Representative Zach Fansler is looking at erosion issues in Yukon-Kuskokwim villages, and KYUK’s Christine Trudeau traveled to Chefornak with him. The following is the first of a two-part series.
Chefornak, like many other villages in the Delta, is facing some tough choices on how best to combat the rapid erosion and flooding caused by climate change.
Max Neale works with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium helping three dozen threatened Alaskan communities.
“In the long term, I think sea level rise for your area is going to be a big issue and it’s possible that sea level rise could, if our global leaders do not address climate change, it’s possible that it could rise three meters, like around 10 feet by the end of this century, which is really scary,” said Neale.
Neale is speaking to the village Traditional Tribal Council, the Chefornak Tribal Corporation, and local government officials on a windy Thursday afternoon in December. Packed tightly into the Tribal Council board room, located on the second story of the village's only store, Neale pulls out a map showing what just two meters of water inundation might look like in the Delta over the coming decades.
“I just urge you to consider that in all of your planning efforts, what’s gonna happen with permafrost, what’s gonna happen with erosion, and what’s gonna happen with sea level rise, and we’re here to try to help you find funding to help you collect data to help you make your decisions,” Neale said.
State Representative Zach Fansler was there too. A former Bethel City Council member, he was all ears and talked about it afterwards.
“Erosion is something that we see in almost every village that we go to,” said Fansler. “It’s an issue whether it’s Napakiak, or it’s an issue that we see in Akiak, or here in Chefornak. Obviously in Newtok it’s a big deal, but Tununak, pretty much everywhere on the coast, you know.”
Fansler is joined by Neale for a walk down to the Head Start building. It sits 20 feet from the shoreline.
“I’m mostly concerned about erosion and our building… it’s just gonna go. And we’re not high enough to be protected,” said Tunuhck.
Eliza Tunuhck is the lead teacher for Head Start. One of the oldest buildings in town, the Head Start building was erected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1980s.
“There’s asbestos under our floor, but it’s covered,” Tunuhck said. “They said it’s okay as long as it’s covered.”
The village center is about a quarter of a mile away. That doesn’t sound far, but on a winter day in a blizzard with 35 mile-per-hour winds, it’s too dangerous for little four and five-year-olds to go outside or walk home unattended. Ideally, said Tunuhck, she’d like the school to be located in the center of the village.
The next day, back in the Chefornak Council boardroom, the group discussed ways to raise funds: selling off equipment not currently in use, rejoining RuralCap, and getting involved in community-based erosion monitoring projects. Neale says that doing so can document the village's problem.
“It’s pretty cheap to participate in,” said Neale. “I think that would be really good to help you collect some data that can show to the federal government ‘this is happening at this rate and we predict it will impact these things at these times.’”
Fansler agrees. He says that the data can also help him build a case in Juneau.
“It’s really important that we have these fact finding missions, and it’s really important that we gather as much information as possible,” said Fansler.
Fansler says that villages also need to be comparing notes with one another as they look for resources and strategies to deal with erosion.
“Sometimes we have a community that figures something out and does it really well, and we want them to hopefully share that knowledge with other communities that are experiencing similar effects,” said Fansler.
Fansler made no promises, but he’s hopeful that the information he’s learned will help him advocate on behalf of Chefornak and many other Y-K Delta villages. General Manager Rosalie Kalistook of the Chefornak Village Corporation is grateful that the group traveled here to see the situation for themselves.
“Yes, there’s a big concern in the village of Newtok, their land is eroding fast, but guess what? My auntie's house is only 12 feet away from falling into the river,” Kalistook said. “We would really like some exposure. Thank you for showing up.”
Tune in tomorrow for Part Two, a look at Chefornak’s history with erosion and what Rosalie Kalistook and other community members think needs to be done to get Chefornak back onto firm ground.