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Trent Teegerstrom (UA, Tribal Ext Dir) and Virgil Dupuis (SKC, Extension Dir) looking over agriculture lands fed by the Flathead River on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT)

Helping Western Tribal Communities Understand the Impacts of and Adaptation Options for Climate Change

Nifa Authors
Margaret Lawrence, Writer-Editor

Virtually all of the lands in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah are suffering from some level of drought. In Nevada alone, more than half of the state is experiencing extreme drought. Residents are struggling to learn and implement effective climate resilience strategies. Climate resilience is the capacity to adapt or respond effectively to change in the face of extreme climate events like the current drought conditions in the West.  

Climate change predictions for the Great Basin and Southwestern United States include decreased water availability, extended droughts, changes in precipitation amounts and timing, reduced surface water availability, declining groundwater supplies and warmer temperatures. All of these are likely to create challenges for agricultural producers.

Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation.
Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is providing important financial support through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program to the Desert Research Institute and its Native Waters on Arid Lands project. This project was the first coordinated agriculture project that focused on the needs of Native American farmers.

Jim Dobrowolski, a national program leader in NIFA’s Division of Environmental Systems, said the project directly addresses important agency goals.

“We want to support research and Extension efforts that develop water management solutions to address critical watershed problems,” Dobrowolski said. “NIFA’s competitive grants program offers vital support to efforts to improve the quality of the nation’s surface water and groundwater resources and bolster scientific solutions for maintenance and restoration of the nation’s farm, forest and rangeland ecosystems.”

The goal of the Native Waters on Arid Lands project was to increase the climate resilience of tribal agriculture and water resources on American Indian lands of the Great Basin and Southwest.

American Indian farmers and ranchers provide an important economic base for rural areas in the Great Basin Desert and arid lands of the American Southwest. Sustaining agricultural production for ceremonial practices, sustenance and trade is becoming more challenging for American Indian communities due to the scarcity of water resources, rapid change in ecosystem composition and health, and historic land tenure policy arrangements.

According to Native Waters project director Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., climatic change including reduced snowpack and rainfall, increased temperatures, and urban and industrial expansion in the American West is increasing the demand for a dwindling supply of water.

“We discovered quickly our native partners understood climate change,” McCarthy said.  “We learned from them that they had been observing climate change on their native lands for many generations. We heard how communities adapted over thousands of years. For some tribes, adapting meant migrating to new lands, and others changed what they were planting over time. In the case of the Hopi people, they focused on breeding new dryland corn varieties.”

Spring feeding crops and livestock in Tuba City on the Navajo Nation with Trent Teegerstrom (U. Arizona, Tribal Extension Dir) and Grey Ferrell (AZ FRTEP)
Spring feeding crops and livestock in Tuba City on the Navajo Nation with Trent Teegerstrom (U. Arizona, Tribal Extension Dir) and Grey Ferrell (AZ FRTEP)

The Native Waters on Arid Lands project focused on working with tribal farmers, ranchers, resource managers, educators and students to understand how they are adapting to changes in climate and declining water resources and what they  need to enhance the resilience of tribal agriculture. The project team engaged tribes from in the Southwest, Great Basin, Northern Rockies and Northern Plains.

“We spent time listening to our native partners early on and learned what they needed and what they expected of us,” McCarthy said. “It opened the minds of scientists and researchers and showed them the interconnections between the challenges the tribes were facing. It also helped us focus on integrating our responses to achieve improving resilience and adaptations.”

Critical objectives of the Native Waters Program included building community resilience to climate change impacts and identifying limitations to the tribal water systems infrastructure. To achieve these goals, the project conducted cost/benefit analyses for water management improvements and identified policy, economic and societal barriers to enhancing tribal capacity to adapt and respond to a range of climate scenarios.

Native Waters researchers focused their efforts on the analysis of water availability on tribal lands under different climate scenarios. They evaluated agricultural water rights policies and assessed the costs and benefits of these policies using Integrated Water Resource Management tools. Additionally, scientists gathered traditional knowledge about ecological, agricultural, and sociocultural changes due to climate events.

McCarthy said the project analyzed the climate projections to the end of the century for every single community it worked with.  “We made the information place based for the tribal communities because these communities have different needs and different farming approaches. When we did workshops, we had one for each community with native language speakers and resource materials translated into native languages.”

Some project objectives needed to be revised from the initial grant proposal. Tribal communities emphasized the project had to work with youth to be successful.

“We realized we had no youth component in the project and, with NIFA’s blessing, we regrouped and reprogrammed a portion of the grant to engage youth through activities led by K-12 educators from tribal communities,” McCarthy said. “Without that flexibility from NIFA, the project would not have worked. The agency understood the need for flexibility in a project with so many tribal partners across multiple states. The project’s goals stayed the same, but the flexibility to rework objectives was crucial to the project’s success.”

The outreach activities involved education, communication and direct collaboration with tribal communities to enhance their understanding of the impacts to water resources and agriculture from extreme climate events. Outreach experts hosted an annual Tribal Summit and regular on-reservation meetings with tribal members.

The Native Waters team understood clear communications was crucial to the project’s success. The collaborative design and deployment of a communication portal for tribes to share and access project successes and events was essential, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finding resilient solutions to the challenges of drought and water scarcity will only grow in importance in the Great Basin and the American Southwest. While the Native Waters project focused on a specific region and several key vulnerable populations, its work benefits the entire nation and even the world as it identifies practical and effective sustainable water management strategies. Additionally, the project has expanded—ensuring its longevity for the future. It is now a program with several projects under its umbrella including a Native Climate project that is working with USDA Climate Hubs.

“I think we built a bridge between Native American people’s knowledge of their lands and Western lands on the most important challenge of our time—climate change,” McCarthy said. “That bridge is a bridge to the future. I hope more scientists learn from native wisdom about mitigating and adapting to changing climate and that tribal communities become more comfortable in working with researchers and Extension on projects to benefit communities.”

Top image: Trent Teegerstrom (UA, Tribal Ext Dir) and Virgil Dupuis (SKC, Extension Dir) looking over agriculture lands fed by the Flathead River on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment
U.S. States and Territories
New Mexico

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