Water is Life for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community

Release Date:

For the Swinomish people of northwestern Washington, water is life. But this symbiotic relationship between man and nature has been disrupted, and increasingly threatened, by sea-level rise and changes in Northwestern storm and rainfall patterns.

Water is Life for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community

The Tribe has lived within the Skagit River-Delta of Puget Sound for centuries, fishing the region’s brackish waters for food and maintaining their homes along the shoreline while also working to keep them clean and healthy.

The Swinomish homelands and way of life are affected by the combined threat of intense stream and coastal flooding, both of which are associated with sea-level rise and warmer air and sea-surface temperatures. The regional economy is affected as salmon and shellfish populations decline. Increased stress is also placed on important Pacific Northwest agricultural areas, which provide 75 to 95 percent of the U.S. supply of spinach, cabbage, and beet seed.

A Relationship in Flux

"Swinomish fishermen have been out there since time immemorial, but climate change brings extra facets," said Jamie Donatuto, an environmental health analyst with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

This year alone, storms destroyed valuable fishing equipment and threatened to cut off the Swinomish people from their traditional seafood diets. These diets, tribal elder Larry Campbell stressed, mean much more than nutrition.

"They're also spiritual foods for us," Campbell said. "We call it feeding our spirits when we eat these foods."

Rising waters also threaten many of the Swinomish's most important archaeological and cultural sites, in addition to flooding their homes. And unlike most coastal residents, the Swinomish cannot pick up and relocate.

"There's no place to go," Donatuto said. "The Reservation boundaries don't move as sea level rises."

The Swinomish needed a way to predict where and when the waters rise so they can warn people and take action. After a destructive, 100-year storm event in 2006, tribal leaders in the United States and Canada reached out to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for help.

Predicted Winds and Wave Heights from 2016 Storm in the Puget Sound
USGS CoSMoS forecast showing the predicted winds (left) and wave heights (right) 48 hours in advance as the tide and storm surge increased and decreased (bottom) during the March 10, 2016 storm. The peak winds and waves coincided with a high tide and storm surge that led to extensive flooding of the Swinomish Reservation and coastal areas of northern Puget Sound.(public domain)

 

Debris in the Swinomish Reservation from a 2016 Storm
Large wood debris deposited on March 10, 2016 above Martha’s Beach and Park, blocking the access road on the Swinomish Reservation. Credit: Eric Grossman, USGS (public domain)
USGS Science

For a decade, USGS geologist Eric Grossman has worked with the Swinomish Tribe and others in the Puget Sound region to better understand coastal processes and drivers of change.

“Much attention has been paid to the effects of rising waters across open-coast beaches and islands,” Grossman said, “but less research has been conducted in coastal bays like Puget Sound and the rapidly changing Pacific Northwest coast and climate.”

In its 137 years of surveying and studying the landscape of the United States, the USGS has become adept at modeling the dynamic relationship between land and water that occurs near coasts. With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the USGS began developing the Puget Sound Coastal Storm Modeling System (PS-CoSMoS). The model is used to forecast sea-level changes and coastal impacts in real time—up to 48 hours in advance and over the coming decades. The model forecasts where flooding and damage are likely to occur by estimating where storm water levels, which can reach from 2 to 3 feet above predicted tides, can cause waves from 3 to10 feet high to impact the shoreline.

The CoSMoS forecasts allow people to visualize what the future holds.

 

2016 Flooding of Wiley Slough Dike and New Tide Gate
Marine flooding of Wiley Slough dike and new tide gate structure, March 10, 2016. Credit: John Wolden, Skagit Dike District 22 (public domain)

 

Formulating an Adaptation Plan

 

"They look to us for guidance on how to help formulate a coastal climate change adaptation plan," Grossman said.

The models and tools developed by the USGS help decision makers make more informed and resilient investments for communities, infrastructures, and ecosystems. Tribe members can anticipate flooded Reservation roads and stock supplies, move valuable fishing equipment to safe locations, and avoid fishing dangerous waters. The Tribe and its partners can design and implement plans that recover declining salmon populations and address threats to infrastructure, agriculture, and the regional economy.

Donatuto and Campbell are ultimately using the coastal change assessments to evaluate adaptation strategies to enhance Swinomish community health.

"Changes in patterns of storms, sea-level rise, and other natural hazards along our coast are not things that most people think about when they first wake up in the morning," Donatuto said. "The CoSMoS forecasts allow people to visualize what the future holds."

Funding and support for the development of this activity came from the Department of the Interior Northwest Climate Science Center, US EPA Region 10, and the USGS Northwest Region Office.

Flooding in the Western Swinomish Reservation
Photographs showing the CoSMoS forecasted extent of flooding (blue) across the western Swinomish Reservation compared to the actual location of maximum flooding (black line) in March 2016. This helped to validate the accuracy of the USGS CoSMoS model. The projections are made by the USGS and overlaid on a 2011 photograph credited to the National Agricultural Insurance Program. (public domain)