Univ. of Alaska climate change office: Warmer weather will cost state millions

Erosion affecting a home in Alaska. Source photo: EPA.gov

John Tetpon

The disease spreading honey bucket has long been a sore sight and barometer on the extent of moving some rural villages

In a state that hasn’t yet been able to put the infamous honey bucket in a museum for forty years, a University of Alaska study says the multiple effects of climate change and the dramatic warming trend in the Arctic could cost Alaska hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the coming decades.

Honey Bucket - photo Wikipedia By CambridgeBayWeather - Own work

The Alaska ‘honey bucket,’ a rudimentary stand-in for toilets that are not connected to plumbing and thus, are not able to flush away waste, were recently the target of an Alaska Water Resources Development Act, a grant program that targeted 1.4 billion to rural communities that did not have indoor plumbing, indoor accessible drinking water and wastewater services.

As reported in the Alaska Daily News in 2016, rural maintenance costs to the state stood at an estimated $700 million for rural sanitation and another $200 million for the installation of necessary sanitation improvements to these communities.

The smelly and disease spreading honey bucket has long been a sore sight and barometer on the extent of moving some rural villages out of third world sanitation conditions.

This dire sanitation environment, coupled with the fact of rising temperatures and water levels are causing many Alaskan Native Village resident s to consider relocation.

The Institute of Social and Economic Research located at the Anchorage campus said in a report last month that a warmer Alaska climate will cause the state a net loss of $340 million to $700 million per year between now and 2050.

Source: Government Accountability Office

The State of Alaska said this year that its budget is the most volatile in the country.

The added costs of climate change in Alaska is a brand new challenge and one that could further upset an already intense political discussion on the realities of our times, especially in a red state such as Alaska.

The projections are based on the state's annual average temperatures rising by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, the report said. The study also said the warming trend has already prompted several coastal villages to relocate to higher ground.

A large part of the overall cost is infrastructure damage caused by thawing permafrost coupled with coastal erosion, accounting for $250 million to $420 million per year.

That puts the state legislature in a double bind of deciding who gets state oil money, larger cities or rural villages. Historically, the uneven allocation of state dollars has prompted some Native leaders to ask: ‘Aren’t we citizens too?’

Rural infrastructure construction, in the form of housing, water and sewer projects, community centers, health clinics, and roads are often passed on to federal agencies like the Denali Commission, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

Introduced by Congress in 1998 under the leadership of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, the Denali Commission is an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. The Commission is currently helping relocate the Yupik village of Newtok in southwest Alaska to a 605-acre site due to severe coastal erosion. Newtok has been working on a relocation plan for years.

Small rural villages like Newtok often lose in the annual state legislative budget battles because they are outnumbered and out-powered by urban coalitions and cities with more voters. Federal agencies have had to step in whenever federal money is available.

Another coastal village on the edge of being swept away due to melting permafrost and beach erosion is Shishmaref in Northwest Alaska. It sits on a narrowing piece of lowland that is fast disappearing. Villagers are desperately trying to find the money to move further inland and to higher ground.

Other coastal villages are named in the report as under threat of coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, reduced sea ice, and fall storms. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers named 31 communities requiring complete or partial relocation as early as 2020, according to the study. They include Bethel in Southwest Alaska, Dillingham in Bristol Bay, Kaktovik on the North Slope, Kivalina in Northwest Alaska, and Unalakleet on the Seward Peninsula.

The warming of Alaska will certainly impact subsistence food gathering cycles, with earlier migrations of ducks due to warmer weather on their nesting and breeding grounds. But sea mammals like the walrus have already found new ways to survive, often hauling out on ice-free beaches by the hundreds if not thousands. There is not enough sea ice for them to use as resting areas anymore. That is a new and unpredictable trend.

The State of Alaska currently spends about $10 billion a year for all operations.

More than 50-percent of the state-funded share of the budget is sent as direct payments to communities, providers, oil companies, and individuals.

Payments are for items such as:

• Medicaid payments to providers (on behalf of enrollees)

• K-12 Schools

• Retirement payments (on behalf of communities and schools)

• School debt reimbursement

• Senior benefits

• Public assistance

• Foster care

• Oil and gas tax credits

• Permanent Fund Dividends

Less than 50% of state-funded budget is spent on government services like troopers, road maintenance, ferries, airports, prisons, the legislature, Pioneer Homes, the courts, the governor’s office, and fish and game, the State Office of Management and Budget said in a recent report.

Under a new forecast of increased financial demand due to climate change, the state will need to collect close to an additional billion dollars a year. In a time of falling oil prices, and austerity decisions, where that money will come from is anybody’s guess.

To reach John Tetpon, please email: johnnytetpon@yahoo.com