October 29, 2021
Nooksack Tribe and partners face up to climate change challenge on South Fork Nooksack River
Kimberly Cauvel

The Nooksack Indian Tribe is partnering with nonprofits, universities, government agencies and others in stepping up to challenges created by climate change to habitat and species  in the South Fork Nooksack River. A die-off of more than 2,000 chinook salmon on their way to spawn this summer provided a dramatic example of what the area is facing. (Image courtesy USFWS)

October 29, 2021
Nooksack Tribe and partners face up to climate change challenge on South Fork Nooksack River
Kimberly Cauvel

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Throughout the Pacific Northwest, climate change is burning landscapes and melting glaciers and, perhaps most critically, changing the way rivers flow. The damage inflicted was evidenced locally early this fall, when more than 2,000 dead chinook salmon peppered the low-flowing South Fork Nooksack River. Fisheries managers said the seasonal low flow of the river was exacerbated by regional drought and a June heat wave, bringing water temperatures to lethal levels for the fish. 

The salmon died before they could spawn, undercutting recent progress in bringing chinook back to the South Fork.

Long before that disaster, the Nooksack Indian Tribe began evaluating how the South Fork Nooksack River is being reshaped as the planet warms. The South Fork is one of three major tributaries to what becomes the singular Nooksack River near Deming. While the North Fork and Middle Fork bracket Mount Baker and receive summer meltwater from the mountain’s snow and ice, the South Fork dips into lower elevation areas east of Lake Whatcom. It’s particularly vulnerable to diminishing snowpack and hotter summers, and its impairment can impact water quality, fish health, irrigation access and backup water supplies in the greater Nooksack River downstream. 

Over about a decade, the Nooksack Tribe has worked with government agencies, university researchers, consultants and nonprofits to chronicle the retreat of local glaciers, monitor unhealthy water temperatures, model the role of forests in stream flows, study climate impacts to salmon populations, conduct a vulnerability assessment for a variety of natural resources and produce an adaptation plan for the habitat and species types deemed most at risk. Soon the tribe will release yet another report; this one is aimed at translating the science and the solutions into boots on the ground. 

A turning point

Plan author Harriet Morgan of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group said the document will mark a turning point, enabling the tribe and its partners to move from dissecting the watershed’s vulnerabilities in the face of climate change to building up protections for vulnerable resources — namely water. 

With origins in the Twin Sisters rather than Mount Baker, the South Fork Nooksack River has particular vulnerabilities to shrinking snowpack and hotter summers. (Nooksack River Watershed Glacier Monitoring Summary 2015)

“How do we actually get from all of these strategies … to action actually happening in the watershed?” Morgan said. The coming document — a climate adaptation implementation plan — will provide a roadmap. “It’s taking it from paper to where the rubber meets the road,” Morgan said. 

During a public event in October, Nooksack tribal member Ross Cline Jr. and his father, tribal Chairman Roswell Cline Sr., said shielding the South Fork Nooksack River from climate change is important not only for resources like culturally important and treaty-protected salmon, but for ensuring water supply and other natural resources endure for all who depend on them. 

“By minimizing the impacts … we help protect our natural resources for the future,” Cline Jr. said. “We protect the trees that help protect the salmon, we protect the salmon that help feed the people, and we protect the water that helps provide life to all plants and creatures.” 

Cline Sr., a retired fisher, later told the Salish Current that the recent salmon die-off is the first he’s heard of in his home watershed. He described the event as heartbreaking and said those types of impacts are precisely what the tribe is working to avoid with its climate change research and mitigation effort, focused largely on stream flows and water temperatures. 

“We need enough water to sustain life of salmon and people,” Cline Sr. said. 

On the landscape

The plan Morgan is due to publish for the tribe in December will highlight projects already underway and planned in the watershed, and will offer guidance for accelerating those efforts in other areas. Examples include ongoing restoration of Black Slough east of Highway 9, which meets the tribe’s climate adaptation goal to protect and create wetlands, and a proposal to create the Stewart Mountain Community Forest just west of the South Fork between Van Zandt and Acme, which could meet the tribe’s climate adaptation goal to implement new types of timber management. 

“It helps to have a really tangible project that people can see and say ‘OK, this is what it really looks like when it happens on the landscape’,” Morgan said. 

At Black Slough and its network of wetlands near Van Zandt, ongoing restoration led by the Evergreen Land Trust has enabled water to seasonally ebb and flow from the South Fork Nooksack River. Ian Smith of the land trust said the site is now helping to absorb flood water and supplementing low river flows, as well as providing habitat beneficial to wildlife such as threatened frog species and resident elk herds. 

Nearby, the Stewart Mountain Community Forest Initiative is mapping out plans to establish a 6,000-acre community forest. A locally managed forest there would help protect the South Fork Nooksack River while also providing for recreation and occasional timber harvest. 

Old-growth in the watershed

Alex Jeffers of the Whatcom Land Trust, which is a partner in the initiative, said a major component of forest management would involve testing timber harvest methods the Nooksack Tribe is studying.

The tribe’s Water Resources Manager, Oliver Grah, said studies have shown that the age of trees distant from a river’s edge but within the watershed can affect streamflow. That’s because forests populated with young trees lose more water to the atmosphere than those populated with old-growth trees. Grah said preliminary results from a model the tribe is developing suggest, for example, that the South Fork Nooksack River could see a 30% difference in streamflow depending on whether 40-year-old or 350-year-old trees are on the landscape.

“The work they have been doing has shown that the whole watershed, in fact, is influencing water flow,” Jeffers said. 

Many nonprofits and government agencies have taken notice of the tribe’s work. The land trust is one example of those already putting revelations from the tribe’s studies into action. 

“We are really taking seriously the alarms that are being sounded in this research that the tribe is putting out in terms of the need in focusing on wildlife corridors, species movement and forested watersheds,” Jeffers said. 

Conservation in the Skookum Creek watershed, a major tributary to the South Fork Nooksack River, was an early success. 

“The land trust in the last five years or so has been able to acquire about 2,500 acres in that watershed, partially because of this information that the Nooksack Indian Tribe research has been putting out,” Jeffers said. 

Climate change around us

More of those types of projects are needed to help buffer the already too-warm South Fork Nooksack River from dire consequences as temperatures continue to climb. 

It’s getting warmer: the average annual temperature has continued an upward trend over the past century. (Image courtesy NOAA)

Morgan said during the October event that Whatcom County has seen a 1.5-degree F increase in average temperatures since 1895, and warming, as addressed in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document released on the heels of the Pacific Northwest heat wave this summer, is sure to continue for decades. 

“We are seeing the consequences of climate change unfold around us. It’s not this distant problem in the future where we can just kick the can down the road and deal with it later,” Morgan said.

A major concern for Western Washington ecosystems is a shift in historically snow- and glacier-dependent water supplies. Warmer temperatures have brought less winter snow, diminishing not only summer snowmelt that feeds rivers including the Nooksack, but also glaciers that need sufficient snowpack year to year in order to grow their blankets of ice. Streamflows are now peaking weeks earlier during the warm season, leaving summer flows low and water temperatures high. 

“Our spring snowpack that we depend on for water for our farms, our fish, as well as our cities and towns, is declining; our glaciers are shrinking; and the timing of streamflow is changing in our rivers,” Morgan said. “That natural water availability is shifting.” 

That’s problematic for the already snow-poor South Fork Nooksack River. 

“The unique position of the South Fork, in comparison to the Middle Fork and the North Fork, is it doesn’t receive year-round snowmelt from Mount Baker, which is a source of annual cold, consistent streamflow,” Jeffers said. “The South Fork gets most of its flow from the Twin Sisters range … and by late summer that source of cold water is gone.” 

Changes to snowpack and streamflow are also bad news for the entire Nooksack River that flows from the North Cascades to Bellingham Bay. 

Government action 

Some government entities have acknowledged these impending water supply problems and climate change and water resource planning is unfolding across local and state levels. 

The state Department of Ecology in July announced the start of adjudication for the Nooksack River watershed. The adjudication process will map out who has water rights, along with the order of seniority in case water levels drop below thresholds set for fish and some water users must be curtailed. The Nooksack Tribe and the neighboring Lummi Nation are proponents of adjudication to ensure treaty-promised fish are protected

“Adjudication needs to happen, and these studies are a part of that; the backbone to what the salmon need to survive,” Cline Sr. said of the Nooksack Tribe’s research and adaptation planning. “Climate change will have an impact on how much water we will have in the future.” 

A draft Climate Action Plan published in June by the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee similarly highlights water supply and salmon survival as leading issues to address. 

“Climate impacts are nowhere more visible than on our water supply … Restoring and protecting our streamflow levels and temperature to ensure year-round salmon migration and survival is the greatest climate challenge currently facing Whatcom County,” the draft plan states. 

Whatcom County Natural Resources Division Senior Planner Chris Elder echoed that sentiment at the October event and said he is grateful for the Nooksack tribe’s leadership on climate change research and adaptation planning. 

Elder also said the creation of an Office of Climate Action under county executive Satpal Sidhu’s office, as called for in the draft Climate Action Plan, would provide a clear pathway for the county to engage in on-the-ground adaptation. The plan calls such an office “a necessity” for achieving goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring streamflows, as well as for securing grant funding to support local projects.  

The Whatcom County Council will consider the proposal after receiving a final draft of the document. Elder said that draft may come as soon as the council’s Nov. 9 meeting. 

Meanwhile, the Nooksack Indian Tribe is forging ahead with its efforts. As Morgan, the Climate Impacts Group scientist penning the tribe’s latest plan, said, “Tribes have been managing natural resources through changes since time immemorial and they are truly experts in this space.” 

— Reported by Kimberly Cauvel

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