Alaska Native Villages:

Most Are Affected by Flooding and Erosion, but Few Qualify for Federal Assistance

GAO-04-142: Published: Dec 12, 2003. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2003.

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Approximately 6,600 miles of Alaska's coastline and many of the low-lying areas along the state's rivers are subject to severe flooding and erosion. Most of Alaska's Native villages are located on the coast or on riverbanks. In addition to the many federal and Alaska state agencies that respond to flooding and erosion, Congress established the Denali Commission in 1998 to, among other things, provide economic development services and to meet infrastructure needs in rural Alaska communities. Congress directed GAO to study Alaska Native villages affected by flooding and erosion and to 1) determine the extent to which these villages are affected, 2) identify federal and state flooding and erosion programs, 3) determine the current status of efforts to respond to flooding and erosion in nine villages, and 4) identify alternatives that Congress may wish to consider when providing assistance for flooding and erosion.

Flooding and erosion affects 184 out of 213, or 86 percent, of Alaska Native villages to some extent. While many of the problems are long-standing, various studies indicate that coastal villages are becoming more susceptible to flooding and erosion due in part to rising temperatures. The Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service administer key programs for constructing flooding and erosion control projects. However, small and remote Alaska Native villages often fail to qualify for assistance under these programs--largely because of agency requirements that the expected costs of the project not exceed its benefits. Even villages that do meet the cost/benefit criteria may still not receive assistance if they cannot meet the cost-share requirement for the project. Of the nine villages we were directed to review, four--Kivalina, Koyukuk, Newtok, and Shishmaref--are in imminent danger from flooding and erosion and are planning to relocate, while the remaining five are in various stages of responding to these problems. Costs for relocating are expected to be high. For example, the cost estimates for relocating Kivalina range from $100 million to over $400 million. Relocation is a daunting process that may take several years to accomplish. During that process, federal agencies must make wise investment decisions, yet GAO found instances where federal agencies invested in infrastructure at the villages' existing sites without knowledge of their plans to relocate. GAO, federal and state officials, and village representatives identified some alternatives that could increase service delivery for Alaska Native villages, although many important factors must first be considered: (1) expand the role of the Denali Commission; (2) direct federal agencies to consider social and environmental factors in their cost/benefit analyses; (3) waive the federal cost-sharing requirement for these projects, and (4) authorize the "bundling" of funds from various federal agencies.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its December 2003 report, GAO found that most Alaska Native villages are affected, to some extent, by flooding and erosion. However, these villages often have difficulty qualifying for federal assistance to combat their flooding and erosion problems. In its report, GAO identified four alternatives that could increase federal service delivery to affected villages, including waiving the federal cost-sharing requirement for flooding and erosion projects for Alaska Native villages. GAO testified on its report before the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 29, 2004. In December 2004, Congress waived the federal cost-sharing requirement for flooding and erosion projects for Alaska Native villages. The Secretary of the Army was authorized "... to carry out, at full Federal expense, structural and non-structural projects for storm damage prevention and reduction, coastal erosion, and ice and glacial damage in Alaska, including relocation of affected communities and construction of replacement facilities." In addition, Congress provided $2 million to the Army Corps of Engineers "... for an Alaska erosion baseline study to coordinate and plan the appropriate responses and assistance for Alaska villages in the most need and to provide an overall assessment on the priority of which villages should receive assistance."

    Matter: Determining the appropriate level of service for Alaska Native villages is a policy decision that rests with Congress. We present four alternatives that Congress may wish to consider as it deliberates over how, and to what extent, federal programs could better respond to flooding and erosion in Alaska Native villages. In any such decision, two factors that would be important to consider are the cost and the national policy implications of implementing any alternative or combination of alternatives. If Congress would like to provide additional federal assistance to Alaska Native villages, it may wish to consider directing relevant executive agencies and the Denali Commission to assess the cost and policy implications of implementing the alternatives that we have identified or others that may be appropriate.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Denali Commission agreed with GAO's recommendation and noted that such an investment policy should help avoid flawed decision making in the future. At its April 2004 meeting, the commission adopted an investment policy that will ensure that federal funds are expended in the most effective and efficient manner possible. In particular, as part of the policy, one of the factors that will influence investment decisions is imminent environmental threats. For villages that are subject to imminent environmental threats, such as flooding and erosion, long-term investments generally will not be made. If facilities are constructed in villages, they will be placed in areas that are protected from flooding and erosion.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that federal funds are expended in the most effective and efficient manner possible, the federal cochairperson of the Denali Commission, in conjunction with the state of Alaska cochairperson, should adopt a policy to guide future investment decisions and project designs in Alaska Native villages affected by flooding and erosion. The policy should ensure that (1) the Commission is aware of villages' efforts to address flooding and erosion and (2) projects are designed appropriately in light of a village's plans to address its flooding and erosion problems.

    Agency Affected: Denali Commission


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