Erosion threatens campsites at Nome River, Fort Davis
Severe erosion at the Nome River mouth has cost Rita Hukill and her family most of their land at their campsite at Fort Davis. This fall the river mouth changed the landscape to the point where the sandy peninsula that jutted out from the western point of Fort Davis was cut in half, formed an island with swift water running through a channel that wasn’t there before. What exactly caused the dramatic change is not clear – maybe it was an extremely rainy August that pushed lots of water downstream, maybe it was nagging ocean waves that worked on the river mouth from the ocean side. The root causes have not been studied yet. But the fact remains that Mrs. Hukill’s sons had to rescue their mother’s cabin that teetered at the brink of a steep bluff – which hasn’t been there before – and move the cabin to the eastern end of their lot. The 81-year-old Elder has used that subsistence camp there for at least 50 years, so long she cannot even remember how long. “My boys grew up there,” she said. As soon as winter let up, she and her family would spend time at Fort Davis, from May to October. It is their paradise: plenty of fish to catch, a perfect launch site for marine mammal hunts and, up inland, plenty of berries to pick. “It’s so nice and peaceful out there,” she said. “Except for when it storms,” she added. Erosion has eaten away at the road that used to lead down to the sandspit from her land, located at the very western tip of the point. “Right there at the end of my land is a channel that never used to be there,” she said. Hukill remembers that in the 1970’s the mouth of the Nome River has also shifted its course and the men of the family dug a new Nome River mouth further west to allow the water to drain into the ocean elsewhere. Hukill said that would be remedy to divert the water destroying even more of the point. “I hope we find someone to open another mouth at the west side to keep the river from eroding even more,” she said. Next to the Hukill’s lot are the Bourdon’s. Esther Bourdon and her family also pursued fishing and hunting from that spot. Her daughter Josie Bourdon reported to the Nugget that last spring the river ran parallel to Fort Davis, washing away the beach and leaving a steep bluff on the oceanside of Fort Davis. “It was running swift almost the whole length of Fort Davis toward the Ahmasuks,” she said.
“The Ahmasuk family Native allotment is approximately 1/4 mile east of the Nome River mouth and has eroded significantly,” explained Austin Ahmasuk in an email to the Nugget. “Last year the Nome River mouth shifted its location right in front of our land which no one living remembers or perhaps even considered a possibility.”
Ahmasuk said that river mouths do shift over time naturally but other factors may also be at play. “I believe sand sales at the Nome River which is removing beach nourishment and the Port of Nome impeding beach nourishment are causing sediment loss and consequent erosion of the Nome River lands and so that must be mitigated for.” He added that things upriver may also cause erosion from the river side of the sandspit as melting permafrost changes the tundra and with heavy rains sweeps clay sediment into the rivers.
The root causes of the most recent erosion and river mouth changes are unknown, as is the mechanism how to mitigate the fast-paced erosion. Ahmasuk said that if climate scientists dire projections of a 2°C warming of the Earth come to true, his place at Fort Davis is doomed. “That probably means that my family looses the camp site and that Fort Davis may be under water in 30 years,” he said.
As erosion happens swiftly, Fort Davis erosion mitigation efforts have not even begun yet. The site is not within the City of Nome boundary and thus lies outside the municipality’s responsibility to act. Both Rita Hukill and Josie Bourdon said, they’ve told anybody who will listen that their campsites are in clear danger of being eroded away. “Every opportunity I have I let our corporations know that Fort Davis is eroding, but nobody took the lead on doing something about it,” Josie Bourdon said.
Getting mitigation efforts started is an involved process. According to Jacquelyn Overbeck, Coastal Hazards Program Manager with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, her office maps and monitors coastal flooding and erosion for the state. The division has mapped data near Fort Davis from the 1950’s, 1980’s and 2015. Reached by phone, Overbeck said that the program facilitates the modeling and works with local, state and federal partners to give local entities data to make informed decisions on mitigation efforts. She said the program commenced baseline data in Nome in 2010, followed up with aerial photo data gathering in 2015 and most recently, in August 2019, when responders flew the coastline upon request of Shaktoolik and Golovin to remap their shorelines after the August storm, and also took aerial photos of the Nome coastline. She said that her office is currently working on a northwest and western Alaska mapping report that is expected to be released in January. So-called orthorectified aerial photos of specific areas are available on request, she said. (See graphics made on Nome Nugget request to the right). Overbeck said that there were no models of erosion available at the specific Fort Davis site and that nobody contacted her office for erosion predictions there.
As for agencies working on coastal erosion mitigation, there are several, she said. The primary contacts for mitigation activities within the State of Alaska are the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as well as the State Division of Community and Regional Affairs. Also, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Environmentally Threatened Communities Grant Center has been assisting communities to navigate state and federal pathways for mitigating flood and erosion hazards, she added.
In absence of an organized city, municipality or borough at the Fort Davis site, a tribe would have to spring into action.
According to Ramona VanCleve, Tribal Liaison with FEMA, there are currently grants available to formulate a so-called hazard mitigation plan. The application period started in October and runs through mid-January. The state Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Services assists tribes and cities in the formulation of such a plan. Once a hazard mitigation plan is approved, there are grants available for federal money to fund mitigation projects, said FEMA’s VanCleve.
Nome Eskimo Community Tribal Resource Director Jacob Martin said that NEC has formulated a Climate Adaptation Plan in 2017, which also addresses erosion. NEC is currently in the process of updating the Climate Adaptation Plan to be released in February or March of 2020, but it does not specifically address mitigation efforts. “We are working with tribes and corporations to update the plan and integrate input on changing land features, how climate change impacts travel to subsistence sources or impacts on food preservation,” he said.
However, a hazard mitigation plan for Fort Davis does not appear to exist.
In the meantime, Hukill counts her blessings that she and her family could make wonderful memories at Fort Davis, living a meaningful subsistence life in the summer. “I love to be out there and go fishing,” she said. Time will tell if her grandkids will be able to make the same memories at that spot.