A Climate Change Adaptation Plan in Response to Sea Level Rise for the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana

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This project will create a Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana (Chitimacha), serving as an implementable plan for coastal community adaptation to climate change that can be used as a model in other small communities.

Figure 1. Federally recognized tribes of the Southeast. Image courtesy USFWS

Figure 1. Federally recognized tribes of the Southeast. Map courtesy USFWS

The Science Issue and Relevance: This project will create a Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana (Chitimacha), serving as an implementable plan for coastal community adaptation to climate change that can be used as a model in other small communities. Situated in the Gulf Coastal Prairie Conservation Region of the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCP LCC), the Chitimacha is one of four federally recognized tribes in Louisiana (fig. 1) with a population of approximately 1,300 people. Directly adjacent to Bayou Teche and less than one half mile from the Atchafalaya Basin Spillway Levee, the tribal seat, reservation, trust lands, and adjacent tribal lands are located in Charenton, Louisiana, totaling 1,200 acres. The Chitimacha indigenous lands cover 23 parishes, including a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico coast in the state of Louisiana. Each of the 23 parishes contains at least one sacred site (e.g., burial mounds) that has been catalogued by the Chitimacha Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, Division of Archaeology.

Aboriginal territories and cultural resources are currently threatened by risks associated with climate change, sea level rise, storm surge, and urban development. The Chitimacha reservation/trust lands and tribal lands are currently impacted by storm surge and vulnerable to catastrophic impact in the event of overtopping or a breach in the Atchafalaya Basin Spillway Levee. Climate change and precipitation variability places the Chitimacha lands at risk from flooding from the north into the Atchafalaya Basin and sea level rise/storm surge from the south. The Chitimacha indigenous lands (approximate boundaries shown in fig. 2), including the reservation and tribal seat, could be almost entirely lost under some climate change scenarios according to some sea level rise model projections. Finally, urban development, including the development of flood barriers such as levees, remains a constant threat to sacred sites.

Figure 2. Approximate boundaries of Chitimacha indigenous lands. Image courtesy Native American Law

Figure 2. Approximate boundaries of Chitimacha indigenous lands. Map courtesy Native American Law

Methodology for Addressing the Issue: This project will initiate a collaborative effort between the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center and the Chitimacha to increase the tribe’s ability to prevent, plan, and prepare for these environmental challenges by enhancing technical skills; facilitating access to software and data; and increasing education and awareness of environmental science, land resources, land loss and coastal restoration, and climate adaptation planning within the Chitimacha. The overall goal of the project is to provide resources and expertise to the Chitimacha to encourage the tribe to be self-sustainable as it faces ongoing challenges related to climate change.

Climate adaptation planning will serve as a model for these efforts in other Gulf of Mexico coastal communities, including state-recognized tribes (Houma, Pointe au Chien, and Atakapa-Ishak) residing in the Gulf of Mexico coastal zone, but will also be applicable to small communities throughout the U.S. A Climate Change Adaptation Plan will provide information and decision-making tools to the Chitimacha Tribal Council that will address future scenarios of climate prediction and adaptive management for tribal sustainability.

Future Steps: The aforementioned efforts will help build the technical and scientific capacity of the Chitimacha to address ecosystem and watershed management issues, including climate change and land cover and development, thereby increasing the tribe’s ability to independently monitor and manage their environmental resources. Project staff will continue to work with the Chitimacha Tribal Council to provide further education and enhancement of technical skills.