Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Drought-depleted Folsom Lake, California, in January 2014.

Fires, Drought, Melting Glaciers: Tribal Climate Experts Hope We Haven’t Passed the Tipping Point

Richard Walker

Mother Earth is teaching a lesson. Or giving us a scolding.

The message, according to those working for climate change solutions: We have to change the way we live, the way we use the land and waters.

In the drought-stricken west, more than 1.3 million acres of parched wildlands are being consumed by fire. Year-to-date, the total number of acres consumed by wildfire—a record 7,210,959—exceeds the 10-year average by 2.2 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Washington, where 16 fires had consumed 326,895 acres as of August 21, three firefighters have died, four injured, and entire towns evacuated.

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon are dying in rivers and streams that are being warmed by hotter temperatures and lower stream flows. According to former Makah Nation chairman Micah McCarty, bacteria that attack the gills of salmon are thriving in the warmer waters. And salmon are returning later to spawn, which has biologists concerned about the viability of their eggs.

On Mount Rainier, a half-acre chunk of the South Tahoma Glacier burst on August 13, sending forth a torrent of water that uprooted trees, carried boulders and shook the ground hard enough to measure on seismic monitoring equipment. It was the first glacial outburst—a large, abrupt release of water from a glacier—in a decade, according to the National Park Service.

“A quick review of historic data reveals, not surprisingly, that the melt in the first part of the summer of 2015 is greater than early season melt from any previous year dating back to 2003, when monitoring began,” the NPS reported.

In the Olympic Mountains of Washington, the snowpack is just seven percent of its normal level, Governor Jay Inslee said in March, announcing a drought for the region. Anderson Glacier, at the headwaters of the Quinault River, is gone, reduced to an alpine lake.

RELATED: Fawn Sharp Discusses Steps to Stemming the Tide of Climate Change

In California, 46 percent of the state was considered to be in extreme drought as of August 21. In the Kern Valley, Lake Isabella—created by a dam that captures the flows from the Kern River—is at 5.8 percent of capacity, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kern County firefighters have 100 percent contained fires that consumed 311 acres. But a fire that has consumed 31,402 acres in the Sierra National Forest is only three percent contained. And the North Star fire on the Colville Reservation in Washington has scorched 126,522 acres and was zero percent contained as of August 22.

“Fires have not been an issue. However, we always get the smoke radiating south from fires in the upper Sierra,” Tubatulabal Tribe Chairman Robert Gomez said. “Water is another issue. [We] have reports of pot hunters looking for artifacts. And water in two of our allotments is very low.”

Statewide in California, 30 water systems operated by tribal nations are considered to be at high or moderate risk because of drought, according to the Indian Health Service (HIS). Affected are 1,782 homes.

In San Diego County, Juana Majel-Dixon, council member and policy director of the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians, is concerned about fires burning northeast of Pauma territory.

“We are watching 24/7,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network via text message. “The crazy side of this [is that] October 1 is when our fire season starts.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since recordkeeping began in 1880. The annually averaged temperature was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average of 57 degrees. And, NOAA reports, the trend is continuing in 2015.

“The combined globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for any month since record keeping began in 1880,” the agency said in a statement on August 20. “The first seven months of the year (January-July) were also all-time record warm for the globe.”

Don’t tell Yupiit Nation Chief Mike Williams Sr. that climate change is not real. He serves with McCarty on the board of First Stewards, which is trying to develop solutions to climate change—change he has been a witness to over two decades.

A veteran musher from Akiak, Williams has seen changes in ice conditions on the Kuskokwim River. Receding ice is affecting fishing and mushing; the dogsled has, for centuries, been an important mode of transportation in the Alaskan bush, where there is no road network.

“We are setting up our fish traps under the ice later year after year,” he said in an earlier interview. “It used to freeze in September. Now it doesn’t freeze until almost November. And last year, there was no snow.”

In February, the famed Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race in Anchorage was canceled because of lack of snow, Alaska Dispatch News reported last February. The next month, the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was moved from Willow to Fairbanks for the same reason.

Looking to Native America for Solutions

As America looks for solutions to drought and wildfire, it is finding them—among the continent’s First Peoples.

National Public Radio and other media outlets reported in June that the North Fork Mono Tribe is thinning forests in the Sierra Nevada to restore meadows, National Public Radio reported on June 10. The Mono people have long known that meadows are like sponges, where snowmelt pools and seeps into aquifers rather than being consumed by trees. Fewer trees and brush also reduces wildfire risk.

Based on science and recommendations presented by the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Yurok Tribe, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began releasing more water from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River, the Klamath River’s primary tributary, to protect the fall chinook salmon run. The releases began on August 21 and will continue through September, according to the bureau. River water stored in reservoirs behind the Lewiston and Trinity dams—the latter creates the state’s third-largest reservoir—is shared with agribusinesses in the arid Central Valley.

RELATED: Tribal Officials Urge Water Release Into Klamath River to Prevent Mass Fish Kill

Yurok Tribe fisheries biologists conducting routine fish-disease monitoring this summer found salmon on the Klamath River that are infected with Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (known by its abbreviated name, ich, pronounced “ick”), the primary pathogen that killed more than 35,000 adult chinook salmon and steelhead in the Klamath River in 2002. In 2014, an outbreak of ich stopped just short of causing a catastrophic fish kill, Yurok officials said. This year’s outbreak occurred a month earlier than last year’s.

RELATED: Deadly Disease Detected in Lower Klamath Chinook Salmon, Water Flow Increased Again

“We take this threat to our fish very seriously, and we’re looking at every option to protect our fish,” Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke said. “We don’t want to go through another catastrophe like the fish kill in 2002, and we will do anything we can to avoid that outcome this year.”

Hoopa Tribal Chairman Ryan Jackson added, “Another fish kill on the Klamath River would be devastating to North Coast communities, especially when Interior can still make the right choice and protect our culture and way of life.”

In 2010, the Swinomish Tribe adopted a Climate Adaption Action Plan that anticipates climate change impacts and guides community development planning accordingly. Among the initiatives: shoreline setbacks, habitat enhancement, relocation of certain roads, incentives for more efficient water usage, a water management plan for periods of drought, and development of alternate energy sources and communication systems.

RELATED: 8 Tribes That Are Way Ahead of the Climate-Adaptation Curve

In July, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is investing $11.8 million to help Native Nations with climate change planning—coastal management, water resource management, ecosystem enhancement, emergency management planning, and protection of traditional foods.

RELATED: Obama Gives Tribes $11.8 Million Climate Change Assist

“These funds will help the American Indian and Alaska Native communities on the front lines of climate change prepare, plan and build capacity,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an announcement of the funding. “The Obama Administration remains committed to supporting these communities as they adapt to the effects of rising sea levels, stronger storms and other manifestations of a warming climate that we see and feel across the country.”

Those working for climate change solutions just hope we haven’t passed the point of no return.

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