Blog 5 — Settlement Tuntutuliak
Tuntutuliak, located on the Qinaq River, near Bethel, in southwest Alaska has a population of 408, based off of the 2010 census, making the settlement rather large compared to other areas. The Yup’ik meaning of its’ name is “land of many caribou’. Tuntutuliak is in the west coast climatic region and is considered a subarctic coastal plain ecoregion. Flat, lake-dotted areas and shallow permafrost is typical of a coastal plain, this is true for Tuntutuliak too.
The settlement, 27 square miles of land, is located 3 miles from the Kuskokwim River. The climate consists of approximately 19 inches of rain per year and 62 inches of snow. They also have about 132 sunny days, on average. As with most other regions, their summer high (hottest time) in in July and the winter low is in January (coldest time).
In regard to permafrost, Tuntutuliak is built on semi-discontinuous permafrost which means the ground underneath the village is lain with permafrost in some areas and some areas there is no permafrost. This makes building in Tuntutuliak rather difficult as each year the areas with permafrost will melt and result in buildings becoming unstable. Unstable buildings then present a health and safety risk to the people using these buildings. One of these buildings is the school which will be discussed later.
As well as permafrost and the building concerns associated with it, there are a number of other natural hazards that affect the village of Tuntutuliak. Things such as floods and erosion along the Kuskokwim or Qinaq River, wind damage to houses and infrastructure, earthquakes, and erosion of the sewage lagoons. A hazard mitigation plan was developed in 2015 to help mitigate some effects of damage that has occurred or may occur. For example, they have looked at placing gabion baskets or large rocks or other armouring/protective equipment along the Qinaq River to protect the residents of Tuntutuliak from future flooding and erosion events. They are promoting permafrost sensitive construction in the region so that buildings will be built with the potential effects of permafrost in mind. Reinforcing buildings and homes against high winds that would otherwise damage buildings. They are also putting in place protective measures against erosion of the sewage lagoons. And last but not least, repair and replace the existing revetment that has eroded already and extend the revetment to protect the Qinaq River as well as the Kuskokwim River.
Getting out of village is hard. The connections to larger areas of Alaska, as well as Anchorage, is primarily via airplane or seaplane. Tuntutuliak relies heavily on air transportation for travelling outside of the village. Their mail and cargo services as well as arriving and departing passengers all come in and go out by plane. With regards to local travel, boats and snow machines are the most commonly used modes of transportation. A barge delivers goods for the village approximately 6 times a year and mail arrives via airplane. The village houses a state-owned 3,025’ gravel runway and a public seaplane base on the Qinaq River.
The economy of Tuntutuliak is based on commercial fishing, fish processing and the school, primarily. Other smaller businesses that provide some income include trapping, basket weaving, skin-sewn products and other Native handcrafted objects. The village is a subsistence-based village that hunt seal and fish. Approximately half of the families that occupy the village go to a fishing camp each summer. In 2010, 47 of the 408 residents held a commercial fishing permit for salmon and herring roe fisheries. There are two “booms’ the village had. One being fishing and the other is more recent. The village has garnered interest for gold mining which will be discussed a little later. Fishing is an important resource for any Native settlement as it provides both food, income and potentially jobs for the occupants of the village.
One job is running the energy source of Tuntutuliak. A former BIA powerplant owned by the Alaska department of education and early development (DEED). It was built in 1957 as a powerplant for the local school and is still functional today. Due to underlying permafrost, the building is atop pilings to keep it off the ground. As well as the obvious permafrost concerns, it was also shown to contain asbestos and lead-based paint so was boarded up and is now inaccessible to the public. Furthermore, the erosion rate of this particular riverbank that leads to the powerplant was eroding at a rate of 1ft per year (2009). As this was a figure from 2009, the figure is likely much higher now. It doesn’t help that this site is also prone to flooding during storm surge events.
This presents clear health and safety issues as the building is unstable and likely toxic. They have three different areas to store fuel produced by the powerplant in the village: the school, village council and the village corp. some uplifting news with regards to energy sources is that in the recent years, Tuntutuliak has been a pioneer in Native settlements developing renewable energy sources. They were the first village, in Alaska, to implement the use of wind turbines as a way to reduce the costs of fuel. They also fitted 30 homes with residential electric thermal storage devices. These devices will store any excess wind generated electricity for the cold winter months. As the first Native village to use renewable energy sources, Tuntutuliak serves as a good example of the ways people can harness the Earth’s energy to reduce the fuel costs to people and not harm the Earth any further.
Other local facilities the village has include phone lines, internet service providers, TV stations, radio stations, cable and teleconferencing services. They also have a washeteria which is where people come to both wash their clothes and take showers. Their sewage system is a flush/haul system to an unpermitted landfill site, sewage lagoon and a 4-mile sanitation boardwalk. The school does have its’ own well and sewage lagoon. The village council operates these sewage utilities.
As mentioned previously, there has been interest in a gold mine near the village of Tuntutuliak. Donlin Gold, a gold mining company in Anchorage, has helped build the longest ice road along the Kuskokwim River from Tuntutuliak to another village called Sleetmute. The village may now see many more people as Donlin Gold will likely need people to mine gold from the mine so this will increase income, and potentially jobs, for the village too.
There is not much tourism that occurs here. You may get the occasional Alaskan that visits from another city or an international visitor that knows of the area. But it’s not a very well-known place, so not much tourism. However, with the development of this ice road, tourism may increase here.
As with any village in Alaska, or elsewhere, that faces the issue of eroding coastlines, especially, time is limited. Many villages suffer severe weather-related damage as a consequence of erosion. Floods, storm surges, high winds and thus erosion all cause damage to the people that occupy the area, infrastructure or even both. As mentioned previously, Tuntutuliak is already putting in place mitigation strategies to try slow erosion but these have clearly failed as they have had to replace and repair most of these prevention measures.
Many villages, especially in Alaska, have been left with no choice but to relocate when erosion has occurred. So, Tuntutuliak may also have to consider relocation too, or stronger mitigation measures. To put stronger mitigation measures in place, I assume more funding and investment will be required. This may be achievable now that there is an increased interest in the village due to the gold mining opportunity. There may be more investment into the village to help sustain it as a location for miners to rest. Potentially even more, or better, infrastructure, too.
The village may welcome these changes as it means more money, better infrastructure, more people, more tourists, etc. However, not all people will welcome the changes. In order to ensure everyone is happy, there needs to be talks with the residents of the village to see where any issues are, if there are any.