How to certify projects during COVID-19? Task a satellite.

NRCS leverages satellite technology to complete emergency home relocation projects in rural Alaska

A home in the rural village of Kwethluk is threatened by rapid stream bacnk erosion. Project timeline: April through Sept 2020.

by Ryan Maroney and Tracy Robillard

When natural disaster strikes, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a resource to help communities rebuild via its Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program.

EWP relieves imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms, heavy rains, and other natural occurrences.

In Alaska, Tribal governments are often the primary local sponsors requesting federal assistance through EWP. Over the past 11 years, NRCS has completed EWP projects in 24 Alaska communities.

In 2020, NRCS provided EWP assistance to two Federally-recognized Tribes in rural Alaska to relocate homes threatened by rapid riverbank erosion.

The Akiak Native Community and the Organized Village of Kwethluk requested and received EWP assistance to relocate 11 homes. Both villages are located on the lower Kuskokwim River, the longest free-flowing river in the United States.

Significant erosion happened during the spring “break up” season, an annual Alaska occurrence when snow and river ice melts. Air temperatures increased too quickly, causing the ice to heave and break up rather than gradually melt in place. Huge chunks of ice jammed up the river and blocked stream flow. The ice jams resulted in large amounts of riverbank erosion that made several homes unsafe for the families that lived there.

NRCS staff worked with village leaders to provide technical and financial assistance from start to finish. Fortunately, the homes were relocated safely and the residents are out of harm’s way.

Certifying the Work…

After a project is complete, NRCS staff must inspect and certify the work before the sponsor can be paid. NRCS staff typically travel to the project site to inspect and certify in-person.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic restricts travel to remote Alaska communities and presents additional risk to residents and NRCS employees.

Also, traveling in Western Alaska is complicated and requires excess travel time to wait for COVID-19 test results in the hub community of Bethel, prior to traveling further out to other villages.

NRCS turned to a creative solution to certify the work remotely, by using the National Geospatial Agency (NGA) end-user license agreement with DigitalGlobe-Maxar to request satellite imagery be flown at these two project locations.

Through this agreement, federal agencies may request task locations within defined timelines to acquire satellite imagery at no additional cost, based on satellite availability.

Maxar uses a suite of satellites to produce cyclical imagery products worldwide. Prior to tasking a satellite, registered and licensed federal government users can check Maxar’s current and archived imagery holdings to see if there is a product that fits the project needs.

Fortunately, the satellites obtained clear-sky images at each project site in August and September. NRCS staff reviewed the images and verified that each home was successfully moved beyond the required setback distance from the eroding riverbank.

NRCS then requested the Tribal Administrator, Sheila Williams Carl in Akiak and Senka Guy in Kwethluk, provide photographs of each site so that staff could further verify that any debris unable to be clearly identified in the satellite imagery had been removed.

Another benefit to remote certification is cost savings for staff time and travel. NRCS estimates it saved $2,500 in travel funds per employee and 35 hours of staff time per employee, per project.

Projects like this could not be achieved without the dedication and hard work of NRCS staff, in particular Ryan Maroney, Alaska Native Technical Liaison; Denise Miller, GIS Specialist; Brett Nelson, State Conservation Engineer; and Jeff Oatley, Civil Engineer.

Sheila Williams Carl, Tribal Administrator, Akiak Native Community

“In partnership with the Kokarmiut Corporation and the City of Akiak, the Akiak Native Community, which was awarded NRCS funding, recently completed the relocation of six homes identified as in danger from ongoing erosion.”

“We completed the relocation work with a 100 percent local workforce. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the tribal council approved an ordinance to limit outsiders from visiting Akiak. The pandemic caused some delay in relocation efforts due to limited air freight options for bringing needed equipment and construction materials to Akiak, but our crews pushed forward.”

“Thanks to satellite and digital imagery, arranged by NRCS staff in Alaska, we were able to complete certification of the NRCS scope of work remotely. This removed the possible exposure to COVID from outside NRCS staff coming to our village to check in person the relocation work completed. Akiak thanks NRCS for the funding to protect six families from threats from the river and for protecting our village from COVID exposure.”

Mike Williams, Sr., Chief, Akiak Native Community

“It has been a short journey since when we met last spring to start thinking about moving those houses to a safe place away from the terrible erosion of the Kuskokwim River. I would like to thank the Akiak Native Community, Kokarmiut Corporation, and City of Akiak for working together on this important project. Our home-grown crew did an amazing job of moving them without a glitch.”

“Our appreciation goes to our own engineer and consultant Joel Niemeyer; our Tribal Administrator Sheila Carl for working extra hard to make it a successful operation; our crew Sammy Jackson I, Ron Andrews, Gilbert Phillip, Curtis George and others. The water and sewer team and the electrical team did an outstanding, timely job with an all local labor force! We could not say thank you enough to all who worked on this project.”

Story by Ryan Maroney and Tracy Robillard, NRCS Alaska. Published October 2020. USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.