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Tribes and Researchers Study Climate Using Science and Traditional Knowledge

The American Association for the Advancement of Science discussed climate change and drought's effects on Southwestern tribes.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was at its lowest in 500 years during 2015, and that is bad news for tribes farther south of the mountain range that straddles California and Nevada.

Southwestern tribes were the focus of a recent symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington D.C., with climate change, drought and water-distribution inequities at the fore.

“American Indian tribal communities who reside near the terminus of the Truckee-Carson River system in northern Nevada are especially vulnerable to declining water supplies,” the AAAS said in a statement summing up the meeting, which was held in mid-February. “In a region with such a fragile water system, uncertainty about the future of traditional life ways, hunting, fishing, and farming looms large.”

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, for instance, depends on waters from the Truckee-Carson system because they flow into the eponymous body of water that they depend on. In “Climate, Water and the American Indian Farmer,” four panelists discussed the impacts of climate change and drought on tribes, as well as several projects under way to study these issues.

The river system is what brings water from Lake Tahoe, which receives the first of the mountains’ melting snow, to Pyramid Lake—except for what is diverted into the Lahontan reservoir by the Derby Dam (as is water from the nearby Carson River), the AAAS said. As a result, farmers must pick and choose which fields they irrigate, and how many head of livestock to raise. Nature has done the same, as wildlife has gone in search of wetlands that actually contain water, the AAAS said.

Even more alarming than the lack of snowpack is the form of precipitation, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Instead of snow that lands in the Rockies and is basically stored up over the winter to be released during spring melt, the water falling from the sky is tending more toward rain, even during what should be the colder months. That can lead to “catastrophic flooding—water that is not useful,” the magazine noted. In turn, it evaporates more quickly in rising temperatures, which means less remaining on the ground and in waterways for use.

Panelist Loretta Singletary, an economist at the University of Nevada, Reno, pointed out that Native communities possess “unique vulnerabilities” when it comes to these trends, as Smithsonian put it. Besides Singletary, panelists were Derek Kauneckis, a political scientist at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs; Karletta Chief, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona and a member of the Navajo Nation, and Maureen McCarthy, executive director of the Academy for the Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. Watch the full presentation at the AAAS website.

All data aside, it is impossible to predict what the effect of all these forces will be, both researchers and tribal experts concluded.

“You can analyze your hundred plus years of data and you can use your best judgment to guess on what you think is going to happen, you know, looking at all these particular occurrences equal to this day,” said Mervin Wright Jr., Pyramid Lake Paiute hydrologist and environmental manager, in the AAAS statement. “But you still don’t know what’s going to happen.”