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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.


Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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.
Closed – Implemented
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."

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
The Denali Commission 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.

Full Report

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Coastal zone managementConservationEligibility criteriaFederal aid to localitiesFederal fundsstate relationsFlood controlLand managementRural economic developmentWetlandsCoastsErosion