Report out on Kivalina evacuation route and school site
The draft environmental review for a proposed evacuation route out of Kivalina is now out, and the project's lead organizations are seeking feedback from local residents.
For several years now, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has been working alongside the Northwest Arctic Borough, the community of Kivalina, NANA Regional Corporation and the Federal Highway Administration to develop both an escape route from the town and a new school site.
Seasonal storms, like the one that pounded the community this week, have eaten away at Kivalina's shoreline. Diminished winter sea ice leaves the silty coast susceptible to greater erosion, while storm surge floods the beaches and townsite during these weather events.
It's been happening for years and is only projected to get worse. During a storm 10 years ago, residents had to be airlifted out by helicopter, which "illustrated that Kivalina currently has no safe method of evacuation in the event of a catastrophic storm surge," stated the report.
Worsening conditions and the encroaching sea have spurred the village to seek a way out.
While they are actively pursuing options for total relocation, they have also been looking into constructing a new school that's out of harm's way. That school site, on Kisimigiuqtuq Hill, or K-Hill, is about six miles northeast of town. If constructed, it would serve as the terminus of the evacuation route and as a modern shelter capable of housing the entire community, if needed.
"Issues surrounding community relocation have been challenging to overcome, as they are neither culturally preferable, nor fiscally practicable in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Kivalina proposes to develop a safe, reliable and direct means of temporary community evacuation to an acceptable mainland location," the report stated.
This project would include three distinct directives: construct a safe and reliable all-season crossing of the Kivalina Lagoon;build an all-season access road between Kivalina and K-Hill; and develop material sources to supply the construction portion.
Initially, managers were considering three different routes for the road: southern, northern and combined route A. They later added combined route B.
"Route alternatives were evaluated for feasibility based on purpose and need; engineering considerations; wetland, fish, and wildlife impacts; number and type of water crossing structures; proximity to material sources; and cost," the report noted.
Following review, they decided the southern route was the best option, called the "preferred alternative" in the report, with combined B as a possible backup.
The northern route was tossed because it would require residents to travel more than a mile along the barrier island "when prolonged exposure to debris-laden waves would increase danger during transit." It would also require too much fill that could disrupt the sensitive wetlands, the report noted. Combined route A was thrown out because it included much of the northern plan.
The southern "preferred" route crosses more directly from town to the lagoon and is the shortest and most straightforward path to the evacuation site. It's about 7.7 miles long and would start near the south end of the airport and follow the lowlands between the relic channels of the Wulik River to K-Hill.
"The 3,200-foot lagoon crossing would require construction of an earthen causeway protected with a layer of armor stone, a bridge, and culvert(s)," the report noted.
The top of the causeway would be built high enough to accommodate the maximum storm surge deemed likely in the event of a 500-year storm, meaning one of the magnitude likely to come only once in 500 years.
The backup, combined route B, is about a mile longer. It follows the southern route to start, and then diverges off through an alternate set of channels.
For the lagoon crossing, they narrowed down four options to one, determining only crossing D was feasible. They ruled out three because of prohibitive cost in the case of the full-span bridge and wildlife requirements for the other two. Crossing D features a solid causeway with culverts and a bridge, which would "minimally impact natural hydrological regimes," allow boat passage for local residents and keep openings for wildlife.
For project materials, the organizations have narrowed down the sources to K-Hill, Wulik River Deposition, Wulik River Relic Channel and Kivalina River Deposition, of which they have deemed many feasible collection sites.
The community was responsible for introducing a number of these project alternatives, based on information gathered from local residents on travel needs and the lay of the land.
As the agencies working on this project have now finished their draft environmental assessment — a necessary step before anything like this can even be considered for permitting, the public will have a chance to look over the assessment and provide comments.
There will be public meetings in three locations next month for that purpose. They are all scheduled for Dec. 5. The first is in Noatak at the IRA Office from 10 a.m.-noon. After that, it will be in Kivalina from 2-4 p.m. at the McQueen School. The last will be in Kotzebue at the Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly Chambers from 6-8 p.m.
Organizers are hoping local residents will show up to give their input on such an important endeavor.
"In the face of this increased threat, Kivalina needs a safe and reliable means of evacuation," organizers noted.
Barring full relocation, which is not likely to happen soon, this may be the community's best chance.
The entire environmental assessment and other information about the project can be found at http://dot.alaska.gov/nreg/KivalinaEvacRd/.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.