Tribes on the forefront of preparing for climate change

Tribes in western Washington are on the front lines of climate change adaptation.

The climate crisis threatens every aspect of natural resources management. For years, the treaty tribes have been gathering data to better understand vulnerable areas on reservations and tribal communities, including impacts to salmon, shellfish, wildlife, water resources, snowpack, traditional plants and tribal infrastructure. Many of the necessary mitigation actions are ones tribes have been doing for years as part of their work to protect their treaty rights.

“Climate change is no longer a ‘tomorrow’ issue—we must address this challenge now,” said Puyallup Chairman Bill Sterud. The Puyallup Tribe released its climate mitigation report in 2016. It’s one of many plans developed by tribes across the region that highlight the potential impacts of climate change and suggest adaptation options.

Puyallup Tribe natural resources staff monitor water quality in Clarks Creek, an urban stream impaired due to low dissolved oxygen and excess sediment. Photo: Emmett O’Connell

Warmer stream temperatures and reduced streamflows can increase risks of disease and die-offs among fish, particularly culturally important salmon. Ocean acidification may impair growth and survival of shellfish such as mussels and oysters. Culturally important sites, key transportation routes and other infrastructure may be threatened by rising seas and stronger storms.

The Puyallup report outlines steps toward adaptation including the continuation of current programs such as the tribe’s focus on restoring valuable habitat, monitoring water quality carefully, and managing hatcheries, fisheries and shellfish resources. Future efforts could include protecting infrastructure by creating systems such as alternate transportation routes if another is flooded or damaged. To help plants and animals threatened by climate change, the tribe could create habitat linkages to enable migration to new and suitable habitats.

“We have confronted hardships in the past, and it was our strong connections to the land and each other that got us through,” Sterud said. “Our best chances of success in preparing for what climate change will bring is through our collective commitment to remain steadfast.”

Warming Temperatures

Suquamish Tribe salmon recovery biologist Steve Todd checks the water temperature on Wildcat Creek in 2021. Photo: Tiffany Royal

For the past 20 years, the Suquamish Tribe has been monitoring water temperatures in the Chico Creek watershed, plus more than 25 other salmon streams in Kitsap County, to understand stream temperature patterns through the warmest and driest months and how they compare with the state’s water quality standards. The data was used in a recent study with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group that assessed changes to stream temperatures and flows in Chico Creek and its major tributary streams.

The study found that warmer air temperatures in coming decades will increase stream temperatures in all the monitored locations, said Steve Todd, the tribe’s salmon recovery biologist, leading to more summer days when temperatures exceed the state’s water quality standard, putting more stress on salmon and steelhead. The state’s standard for summer salmonid habitat is 16C/60.8F, measured by the seven-day average of the daily maximum temperatures.

The tribe hopes to build on this study by integrating the impacts of a growing population and land use development, along with climate change impacts, to assess the implications for watershed hydrology, stream temperatures, and salmon in Chico Creek and other Kitsap watersheds.

“If we are to recover and protect salmon for future generations, we need to use the best science available to understand how climate and land use changes are likely to impact our watersheds,” Todd said. One focus will identify where protection and restoration of riparian vegetation is likely to be most effective given future development patterns and a warmer climate.

The recently completed steelhead recovery plan for the East Kitsap area, along with several watershed restoration plans completed by the tribe, point to land use and climate change impacts as key pressures to address in salmon recovery

Moving to Higher Ground

For tribes on the Olympic coast, climate change is not a far-off threat. It’s already at their door—and threatening to seep in.

The recession of the Anderson Glacier. Photos from 1927, 1965: University of Washington. Photos from 2004, 2018: Larry Workman, Quinault Indian Nation

That urgency was recognized in an appropriations bill signed by President Biden in March 2022. The bill included funding for the Hoh and Quileute tribes and Quinault Indian Nation to undertake mitigation measures, including moving some structures to higher ground.

The funding package includes more than $1.6 million for the Hoh Tribe’s relocation development project, which will include funding the connection of water and sewer lines as the tribe relocates to higher ground.

It includes nearly $1.5 million for the Quileute Tribe’s Move to Higher Ground water system improvement project, which will finish development of a reliable water source as the tribe moves facilities and develops future housing on land that won’t be threatened by tsunamis and floods.

And it includes $500,000 for the Quinault Indian Nation’s relocation development project, which would help the tribe develop infrastructure for a seven-family neighborhood project to be built above a tsunami zone. The infrastructure eventually would be used for a school and water tank. 

“Since time immemorial, the Quinault people have lived and thrived in the Taholah Village, which is along the Quinault River and the Pacific Ocean,” said Quinault President Guy Capoeman. “However, because of the threat of increased storm surge, continued riverine flooding due to climate change and threat from a tsunami, the Quinault Indian Nation has made the difficult decision to relocate the Taholah Village to higher ground for the safety of our citizens.”

Sea Level Rise

The potential effects of sea level rise are so large in scale they can be difficult to imagine.

The Squaxin Island Tribe’s Natural Resources Department created an online tool to educate people about the science of sea level rise and the potential impacts to natural and cultural resources. Users can navigate a series of tabs to watch rising waters carve Squaxin Island from one island into four. They can view a map that shows the tribe’s shellfish harvesting acreage—a crucial part of their culture­—shrink. 

Squaxin Island Tribe biologist Rana Brown, right, surveys a shellfish bed that reopened following a community effort to improve water quality. The tribe’s treaty right to harvest shellfish is threatened by sea level rise. Photo: Debbie Preston

To create the ArcGIS Story Map, the tribe’s climate change ecologist Candace Penn and GIS manager Brian McTeague collected mountains of data with the help of other staff, local partners and collaborators. It includes analysis, data, video, interactive images, maps and links to additional resources. On one page, readers can read and explore for themselves the work undertaken to model future tidal levels. On another, they can read about the tribe’s connection to Squaxin Island: “Songs sailed out across the waterways as our ancestors paddled their magnificent cedar canoes on their way to gather, trade, or attend family potlatches there.”

Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology was used to create a digital elevation map of Squaxin Island. Atop that topographic base, the model predicted future sea level rise and its potential impact on shellfish and forage fish habitats and related salmonids that are culturally and economically important to all Northwest tribes.

The story map notes that the tribe already has taken steps to potentially mitigate future impacts, such as protecting and restoring estuaries to serve as buffers against sea level rise, identifying tribal areas that will likely be impacted by sea level rise, educating tribal members and the public about climate change effects, and highlighting traditional ecological knowledge and paths toward enhanced climate resiliency.

The story map crystallizes a philosophy that drives home the importance of acting for the future: “We do not inherit the earth from our parents, but rather borrow it from our children.”

View the story map:

Bluff Erosion

Not only could sea level rise put tribal resources underwater, it also can erode habitat above ground. 

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is evaluating bluff erosion due to sea level rise and more extreme storms during ever-increasing high tides.

The tribe has been studying its shoreline in Port Gamble Bay for the past few decades, analyzing specific areas and how the shoreline responds to sudden geographic events, said Paul McCollum, the tribe’s natural resources director. More recently, the tribe has been taking a broader view on how to address changes to the shoreline that maintain its function while also mitigating bluff slides.

“Because of the current relatively good shoreline health, the best way to maintain function will be to avoid building new hard features or structures on the shorelines, while maintaining or improving upland vegetation that helps stabilize soft sediments,” McCollum said. “At the same time, there are some parts of the tribe’s coastal bluffs that are concerning, and are at a high risk of a slide that could affect a primary structure or valuable resources.”

Low streamflow

The Nooksack Indian Tribe has been monitoring the recession of the Sholes glacier for the past 10 years. Since 2012, the Sholes glacier on Mount Baker has receded by 400 feet, said Oliver Grah, the tribe’s water resources program manager. 

Nooksack Tribe water resources manager Oliver Grah, accompanied by his dog Tillie, climbs the Sholes Glacier during a 2015 survey. Photo: Kari Neumeyer

The loss of glacial ice in the North Cascade Mountains has increased concerns about high temperatures and low summer streamflows in the South Fork Nooksack River. Overall, glaciers on Mount Baker have receded more than 1,000 feet in the last 20 years. Protecting mature forests can help preserve summer streamflow lost to glacier recession, because mature trees use less water than younger regenerating trees in harvested areas.

To that end, the Nooksack Tribe is part of the proposed Stewart Mountain Community Forest Initiative, which aims to acquire and steward 6,000 acres in the South Fork Nooksack River watershed. The effort is one of 140 high-priority actions in the tribe’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan. 

“All of these changes to how we manage our forests will take time, but if we are to offset the impacts of climate change on streamflows and water supply, we better get started now before those impacts get progressively worse into the future,” Grah said. 

As a result of low flows and high temperatures, salmon returning to the Sauk and Suiattle rivers have been delaying spawning by waiting for cooler fall water temperatures, said Scott Morris, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe’s water quality coordinator.

Fisheries managers can help mitigate the impact of glacial melt by identifying and protecting cold water refuges where deep groundwater upwells into streams. Restoring native plants and building engineered logjams also improve salmon habitat.

“In addition to providing refuges for young salmon, logjams slow streamflows into side channels and prevent erosion,” said Sauk-Suiattle natural resources director Jason Joseph.

Carbon neutrality

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is investigating a possible carbon neutral strategy after updating its greenhouse gas emissions inventory and attending a climate change camp with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. 

Already on hydroelectric power—which has its own set of issues—and knowing the tribe’s current carbon footprint, the next step is to figure out what more can be done, said Hansi Hals, the tribe’s natural resources director. 

In parallel to carbon-reduction efforts, Jamestown is interested in alternative micro-grid options such as solar, wind or marine energy. 

“In some ways, it’s comparable to the offset market. How do you reduce it? Can you take a bus, can you take a bicycle? I mean, it sounds trite, but it’s real,” Hals said. “Once you know our carbon footprint that we’re having a hard time scrunching lower, what do we do about it? Are there ways to assure carbon sequestration at the same rate of the generation?”

The tribe also wants to create a resiliency hub—an environmentally friendly way to protect the community during heat waves, especially the elders.

“How do we keep ourselves safe and healthy?” Hals said. “Last year’s heat dome was a bit of a wake-up call.”

The receding Anderson Glacier in 2018. Photo: Larry Workman, Quinault Indian Nation. Stories: Trevor Pyle, Tiffany Royal and Richard Walker