Erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost can threaten lives and damage infrastructure in Alaska Native villages. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these threats.
Federal agencies budgeted about $200 million in FYs 2016-2020 to build resilience to environmental threats in these villages, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says much more needs to be done to protect them. Of the more than 30 federal programs that could help, most are hard for Native villages to access, GAO found. For example, programs that require participants to share costs with the government can be out of reach for small villages.
More than 70 out of over 200 Alaska Native villages face significant environmental threats from erosion, flooding, or thawing permafrost, according to a 2019 statewide assessment. Consequences from even a moderate flood or increasing erosion could be significant and over one-third of these communities face the compounding effects of more than one threat. According to several federal officials, short-term actions are needed to address the most urgent threats without waiting for additional studies. At the same time, many Native villages also need more information to support longer-term planning.
GAO says opportunities exist for federal agencies to better support Alaska Native village efforts to build resilience to environmental threats by improving coordination among federal, state, and tribal entities. The watchdog found that federal agencies coordinate in several targeted ways, including on a per-project basis, but do not systematically coordinate to address these threats statewide. Broader coordination efforts have been limited because of agencies’ focus on their own projects and the absence of consistent federal support for interagency coordination.
GAO reviewed 20 programs across federal agencies and found they each had at least one characteristic that could pose an obstacle to villages’ obtaining assistance, such as project cost-share requirements.
The government watchdog is calling on Congress to consider establishing a coordinating entity to assist Native villages facing environmental threats. GAO is also making eight recommendations, including that seven agencies change programs to reduce barriers that hinder Native villages’ accessing federal assistance. Most of the agencies agreed.