One of Alaska's most eroded coastal villages faces a new crisis: the closest river has become so shallow that barges can no longer make regular fuel deliveries to the remote community.
Running out of fuel in Newtok would be disastrous, say leaders of the Yupik Eskimo community of 315. Without fuel, villagers cannot power the snowmobiles and boats they need to search for such foods as seal and halibut, which are crucial to their survival.
"This is food we have to have to prepare for the whole wintertime," said acting tribal administrator Stanley Tom.
Flooding and erosion affects 184 out of 213 Alaska native villages to some extent, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office. Various studies indicate that rising temperatures are partly to blame, the report said.
"The situations which Newtok and other coastal Alaskan villages face concerns me greatly," Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens said in written statement to The Associated Press. "This is a real world example of the impacts of climate change in North America -- signs of change are apparent in Alaska today, and the consequences are very real to us."
In Newtok, erosion caused by the Ninglick River is happening at a rate of about 90 feet per year and is expected to consume land under homes, schools and businesses within five years, the GAO study said.
The Ninglick erosion has sapped the Newtok River, which once flowed freely, allowing barges to deliver fuel to the village's tank farm.
Every year the problem is more acute, said Mark Smith, an executive in the Anchorage office of Crowley Maritime Corp., which delivers bulk fuel by barge to scores of rural Alaska communities.
"Newtok, like several other villages, is subject to geological changes and that's made it a much more difficult village to serve," Smith said. "I think it's gotten worse."
So much so that barges in recent years made regular deliveries each spring and fall with lighter loads. Then last spring, barge crews spent several days waiting for tides to raise the level of the Newtok River before they could make a delivery. That was the last time a barge delivery was attempted.
Conditions on the Newtok River have deteriorated so much that the company likely will no longer make fall deliveries when crews are hustling to fill final orders before winter closes in. That means just one yearly delivery in warmer months -- if tides allow.
"The delivery window has just been shrinking every year," Smith said.
For now, Crowley is flying in fuel ordered by the power plant in Newtok, which is far off the state's road system. Crowley is filling the order at barge prices.
All other fuel customers would have to pay air freight, which could drive the price of gasoline up to $7.50 a gallon. Only a couple thousand gallons of unleaded gasoline remain in the village, said Tom, whose variety store has run out of gas and heating oil to sell.
Though residents have enough heating oil to last through winter, the fuel crisis has prompted the village to look for help to build a pipeline system to transport fuel delivered by barges on the Ninglick.
"It could be a temporary aboveground pipeline system until we move. Nothing fancy," Tom said.
But state and federal funds for the village have dried up because Newtok has begun to relocate to higher ground nine miles to the south.
Newtok's move is expected to take several years, casting the village in financial limbo. It's a unique predicament that could set precedent on how government deals with similar transitions in a region wracked by escalating climate change.
"The village is in a very tough spot. How to help is a puzzle," said Chris Mello with the Alaska Energy Authority, who is investigating the problem with Gov. Sarah Palin's office. "No existing program that I know of is set up to cope with the situation they're in right now.
A fuel pipe alone would not be a suitable solution. The village also is in dire need of adequate storage. Its present bulk fuel tanks are "are old and rusty and leaky and the power plant is old and beat up," Mello said.
A partial solution might be something like a portable fuel delivery system which could eventually be moved when an erosion-threatened village relocates, said Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"It's an enormous problem that's going to require enormous resources," he said.
If Newtok runs out of gasoline before another barge is able to deliver, residents won't be able take their snowmobiles or motor boats out to hunt for seal, walrus and beluga, said Teddy Tom, the tribal administrator's cousin.
"Hunting makes us able to eat," he said. "Without gas, I would be stuck in the village. I would pay more at the store."