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KNBA News - Pres. Obama announces steps, grants to address village relocation, water and sewer needs

Sep 2, 2015

Sept. 3, 2015

President Obama names Denali Commission as lead agency for coastal communities threatened by climate change

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it's just a matter of 5 to 10 years before vital infrastructure in Kivalina is destroyed by erosion, flooding. Sea ice that now forms later in the year used to protect the island from fierce fall storms.
Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA

Based on a story by Zach Hughes, APRN

Wednesday in Kotzebue, President Obama continued his focus on climate change in Alaska by announcing that the Denali Commission will take the lead in dealing with coastal communities threatened by disastrous flooding, erosion and thawing permafrost.

That's welcome news for Melanie Bahnke. She’s the president of Kawerak, the nonprofit that serves the Native Bering Strait region, which is 75% Alaska Native. Bahnke said finding a group to take charge has been a repeated recommendation to the state and federal governments.

"We need to coordinate on a state, federal and local level, said Bahnke. “Our resources, our energy, there is no one lead agency that is tasked with identifying protective measures that need to be put in place."

The Denali Commission doesn't have staff to begin systematically working with the dozens of imperiled communities, but $2 million dollars set aside by the White House will expand its capacity. The Commission will also build on existing policies and procedures, and maintain partnerships with The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other federal agencies and state agencies. Funds for relocation of threatened villages are not available, but Commission co-chair Joel Neimeyer said involvement from the president's recently created Arctic Executive Steering Committee could bring cabinet-level funds.

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President Obama announces increase of more than a third in federal funding for Alaska rural water and sewer needs

Shown here: A young man carries 10 gallons of water home from the Kivalina water tank. Each jug weighs about 40 lbs.
Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA

By Joaqlin Estus with assistance from Matthew Smith, KNOM

The White House Wednesday issued a statement announcing an increase of more than $16 million to go toward 33 water and sewer projects in Alaska. That's a third again as much money as last year's total federal allocation of 51 million dollars. The state met those grants with a match of $7 million.

The new money will go toward construction and installation of new systems, repairs to old systems, and for assessments to determine which of the older systems need or will soon need a fix. 

Andy Teuber is the Board chairman and president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He said the funding is much needed to improve public health.

Edward Enoch unloads ice he chipped from a riverbank near Tuntutuliak. About 6% of Alaska's population lack in-home plumbing, the highest rate in the nation. People in the 30-plus communities without services are from 40% to 98.9% Yup'ik, Inupiat, or Athabascan.
Credit Charles Enoch / KYUK

“Those children living in those rural communities with limited access are five times more likely to be hospitalized for those lower respiratory infections and 11 times more likely to be hospitalized for pneumonia” said Teuber.“So there's a substantial number of communities and community members across rural Alaska that are in need.”

The White House stated eligibility requirements for Rural Alaska Village Grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are being changed to remove the word "dire," so villages won't have to wait until disaster strikes to get funding. Teuber said the word “dire” historically has meant “honey buckets,” so changing the requirement removes a significant barrier to keeping existing systems up and running.

“The White House statement reaffirms that what we understand to be the President's own stated priority to ensure federal resources are effectively used to avoid public health risks and prevent far costlier infrastructure rehabilitation after the system fails,” said Teuber. 

But USDA Director for Rural Development in Alaska Jim Nordland said the word "dire" wasn't meant to be taken out of the regulation.

“I think there was a mistake on that. There has been some changes in the regulation but there are still communities in Alaska that are on honey buckets, that are in dire situations,” said Nordland. “The incidence of water borne disease is very high. It's just unacceptable to have communities in Alaska still on honey buckets.” 

Nordland agrees with Teuber that the new money will help improve public health but much more is needed. He also applauds the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Village Safe Water Program and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for their efforts to find more cost effective systems.