JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON – On the flat and frozen sea ice, a furry beast hoists itself onto two hind legs. Its black nose and beady eyes stare down observers a few hundred yards away, while its white fur camouflages against the Arctic landscape. Moments later, the creature turns and scurries off toward the horizon.
Members of the traveling party with Jaime Pinkham, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, witnessed this polar bear encounter near the community of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, while touring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District’s Barrow Coastal Erosion Project. During the week of Feb. 21, the dignitary visited several civil works projects in the state that were recently funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. In total, this congressionally authorized funding will provide nearly $1 billion for civil works construction in Alaska.
Accompanied by key district members, Pinkham traveled to the Barrow Coastal Erosion Project in Utqiagvik, Port of Nome Modification Project in Nome, Moose Creek Dam Safety Modification Project in North Pole, as well as the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory’s permafrost tunnel near Fairbanks. While seeing the Nome and Utqiagvik projects firsthand was an important outcome of his visit, meeting with community members affected by the new infrastructure was the supreme objective.
“It was important to engage with community leaders and representatives to understand their perspectives on how these projects align with the administration’s goal of supporting the supply chain, building community resilience around climate change and investing in underserved communities,” Pinkham said.
Since being appointed to his current position on April 19, 2021, Pinkham’s duties are to establish policy direction and supervise all Army functions related to the USACE Civil Works Program. Furthermore, he is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, a federally recognized tribe in north-central Idaho with more than 3,500 enrolled citizens. According to Pinkham, when he travels home, he can be found “sitting around the drum singing the old songs in the old way.”
Speaking in his native language, Nimipuutímt, he thanked the Nome Eskimo Community for the opportunity to meet on their land. In Nome, USACE intends to expand the local port to alleviate existing vessel restrictions that are imposed by insufficient channel depths and limited harbor space. The port serves the greater Seward Peninsula region, and a robust and efficient transportation hub is foundational to the long-term viability of surrounding communities. The project received $250 million from the new infrastructure law.
“In Nome, I saw the importance of trying to reach a shared vision within the community,” he said. “I learned from the Native leaders about their concerns to preserve a significant subsistence lifestyle that is crucial to their survival and identity.”
Pinkham added that he was encouraged to hear about the native community’s willingness to communicate and coordinate with officials moving forward to ensure a mutual understanding. Furthermore, it was enlightening for him to learn from local elected leaders about how the port is becoming an important pivot point for the nation’s presence above the Arctic Circle. An expanded port presents potential to expand business and tourism opportunities, while providing an important hub for research and public safety.
“The Corps’ history in Nome dates back to the construction of the original harbor in 1917,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, commander of the USACE – Alaska District. “We have been there from the start and are committed to assisting the community with navigation improvements that are built to last.”
He added that Nome is on the frontlines of an evolving world and Alaska’s strategic location is integral to the success of the nation. The newly allocated funds will allow USACE to deliver critical infrastructure in the Arctic, while providing a valuable boost to the state economy.
“We are focused on building a stronger Alaska through deeds, not words," Delarosa said.
Meanwhile, the construction of the Barrow Alaska Coastal Erosion Project in Utqiagvik is fully funded at about $364.3 million with federal dollars from the passage of the disaster relief law. The community is the political and economic hub of the North Slope Borough and provides important services to surrounding villages in Northern Alaska. The town experiences frequent and severe coastal storms, resulting in flooding and erosion that threaten public health and safety, the economy of the community, critical infrastructure valued at more than $1 billion, access to subsistence areas as well as cultural and historical resources. The project aims to reduce the risk of storm damage for a five-mile stretch of coastline by constructing a rock revetment that provides a protective berm, while raising a nearby street above the reach of threatening ocean waves.
While meeting with the Native Village of Barrow, Pinkham was treated to traditional Inuit foods like seal meat and muktuk, which is frozen whale skin and blubber. During his shared time with the tribal council members, he gained a greater appreciation for their needs and concerns as well as insight on the importance of the new seawall in protecting their families and traditions for years to come.
“In Utqiagvik, it was easy to recognize how a changing climate is impacting the safety and livelihood of a community,” Pinkham said. “I was grateful to feel the level of cooperation and support for this project between the borough and native leadership.”
Also, Pinkham visited the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project in North Pole, where a safety modification project for Moose Creek Dam is set to begin this spring. In 2021, the initial portion of construction was funded at $59.2 million. The new infrastructure law funded the second phase with about $88.6 million. Bauer Foundation Corp. of Florida will build a mix-in-place concrete barrier wall at the dam that will span more than 4.5 miles long at a depth of up to 65 feet. Referred to as a “mega project,” it will be the largest USACE civil works endeavor in Alaska since the completion of the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project near Juneau more than 30 years ago.
Since 1979, Moose Creek Dam has regulated the flow of the Chena River to protect downtown Fairbanks during high-water events. These operations have saved the community hundreds of millions of dollars by preventing potential flood damage. The Chena Project was constructed in direct response to the 1967 flooding of Fairbanks that caused an estimated $80 million in damages.
“Moose Creek Dam is a vital asset to the greater Fairbanks community,” Delarosa said. “By improving the facility with engineering advancements, we are addressing the risks of aging infrastructure and extending the life of the dam for many years to come.”
Finally, Pinkham learned about how the district partners with the USACE Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory during a tour of the lab’s permafrost tunnel near Fairbanks. The two organizations create unique solutions to engineering challenges to ensure the successful design and construction of projects in an arctic climate. Since the 1960s, engineers have excavated the former gold mine to study permafrost, geology, ice science, mining and construction techniques.
“In Alaska, getting a briefing and tour of the permafrost tunnel showed the depth that [USACE] will go to better understand how the natural world really works,” Pinkham said.
Walking the frozen tundra and meeting with key stakeholders in the Far North proved to be an invaluable experience for Pinkham. Most importantly, he gained a first-hand perspective of the issues and challenges associated with the Alaska District’s Civil Works Program. Whether it’s dam safety improvements, port expansions, seawalls, permafrost or polar bears, the knowledge and insight gleaned from the trip will help Pinkham accomplish his duties at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“There is never a shortage of lessons and unique opportunities when I join a Corps district on the ground,” he said.