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Confronting climate change impacts, tribes prepare and persist

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Confronting climate change impacts, tribes prepare and persist

Sep 28, 2023 | 9:07 am ET
By Jeniffer Solis
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Confronting climate change impacts, tribes prepare and persist
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Water lapping shore of Pyramid Lake. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)

This story is the last in a series. Read part one on infrastructure issues here, and part two on environmental consequences here.

It can take up to a century for a piñon pine to produce the soft sweet seeds that birds, squirrels and other small mammals rely on for food. The Walker River Paiute Tribe has held their annual Pinenut Festival and blessing in September for just as long.

Earlier in the summer, tribes throughout Nevada expected a high seed yield after record rainfall swept the Great Basin. That wasn’t the case this year, according to permit data from the Bureau of Land Management, which sets harvesting regulations. It’s possible the trees were affected by an unusually late and cool spring and years of drought.

“Traditionally, you would wait until the rabbitbrush turns yellow to go to the mountains to harvest your pine nuts,” said Andrea Martinez, the chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “The weather is different, the seasons are different because of climate change. It’s changing the way our Earth operates. It’s affecting our harvest, it’s affecting nature.”

Whether or not to change the time of the pine nut blessing is becoming a bigger discussion among elders in the tribe, says Martinez.

But for now, the festival will continue as is. There’s more to celebrate than a good harvest this year. Walker Lake — a part of the tribe’s reservation before disgruntled settlers ripped it away — rose by 15 feet over the summer after historic snow melt.

There’s a lot of hope native fish will be reintroduced to the lake someday, which died out after water from Walker River was diverted for agriculture, and the salt content of the lake became too high to sustain the fish. After all, the Paiute people of Walker Lake call themselves the Agai Dicutta — “trout eaters”— in their native language.

“We’re really happy about that,” Martinez said. “When the lake started to disappear, it’s almost like our heritage and our identity was disappearing. But it’s coming back, it almost feels like a metaphor.”

Damage from months of flooding in Schurz is still being repaired by the time the annual festival rolls around. The MC on stage near the powwow grounds talks about road construction and other troubles caused by the floods, but he talks about celebrations too. Kids birthdays, Walker Lake improvement, a new season of Reservation Dogs, and veterans returning home.

Calling Eagle, a band, plays traditional prayer songs and between competitive dance sets, everyone is invited to join. Some of the dancers are wearing traditional regalia, some are in cuffed jeans and graphic tees, and others are moms in fleece joggers and tank tops carrying babies.

Later in the night, an elder named Steven “Snake” Frank, instructs festival-goers on how to perform the pinenut blessing in the traditional way, which the tribe hasn’t done in years. Dancers are told to form a complete circle around a small tree the tribe brought in from the hills and planted on a patch of dirt. 

“As you dance, you hold hands and hold each other and support each other,” Frank says, as dancers begin a circle dance, kicking up dirt and burying the pinenut seeds under their feet. “Our circle is supposed to be complete, and we dance as one people, in unison.”

The flooding, the erosion on the river bank, it’s a wake up call, Martinez says.

“It’s because of how we’ve been treating the earth and what we’ve been doing, so ultimately, we need to take responsibility for that,” Martinez says. “Since everything is a circle, it’s going to come back to where it used to be.”

From emergency to emergency

In May, four households in Lyon County voluntarily evacuated after floods grew. By June, another eight households were evacuated from the Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area to protect Nevada Department of Wildfire employees and their families. At the same time, the Lahontan Reservoir — a massive dam near the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation—was spilling over as lake levels reached the top of flashboards.

“At first, people were really scared,” said Jackie Conway, the emergency management manager for the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. “There were a lot of rumors out there.”

Over the following months, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s emergency operation center prepared for flooding, expected to be on par with the region’s 2017 floods, which caused over $33 million in damages to state infrastructure, like roads and dams.

Sandbags were prepared, the health clinic prescribed patients two months worth of vital medications, and tribal facilities were equipped to accommodate anyone who needed to be relocated. Elders volunteered to monitor canals surrounding homes on the reservation and remove any debris threatening to stop water from flowing out of the area.

Fortunately, the unusually cool spring dulled some of the destructive force the tribe saw during the 2017 flood. Conway says the tribe had more experience this time around too. In the past, the main emergencies the tribe planned for were earthquakes and wildfires. But there’s more emergencies now.

For three years, the tribe navigated a global pandemic, and like a well-oiled machine, when the flooding came their emergency operation center revved up again.

“Under COVID, that’s kind of where we got — and I hate to say this — but it’s where we got the experience,” said Jon Pishion, the health center director and deputy incident commander for the tribe.

“A week after the end of the COVID emergency declaration, we did the flood emergency declaration. So we moved from one to the other,” he continued.

Confronting climate change impacts, tribes prepare and persist
Water flows over the flashboards at the top of Lahontan Dam in June. (Photo courtesy of Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe.)

A battle against erosion

Rivers want to meander the way a snake does, says Donna Marie Noel, the director of the natural resources department for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. 

She points to a map in her office, “We’ve identified several areas along the river that get a lot of erosion.”

The plan is to work with nature to fortify the banks of the lower Truckee River. Erosion under the Weber Reservoir Dam this summer shows the limitations of trying to work against the river. Before the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river in the 1960’s to reduce flooding upstream in Reno, cottonwood trees and willows held the bank of the river together. The ones that weren’t torn out soon thinned away. 

It won’t be easy. River banks are notoriously challenging sites to establish plant life from scratch, and the grant funded department will need support, but for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, it’s the only way.

Restoring suitable floodplains and wetlands is a good start, says Marie Noel. 

Functioning wetlands act as a natural filter for water, trapping fine sediments before they flow into Pyramid Lake. Floodplains have always been a part of the Truckee River, taking in overflowing rivers before they pummel downstream banks. And despite Nevada’s reputation as the driest state in the union, it’s home to a catalog of vegetation suited to waterlogged soil: wild rye, Lemonade bushes, southern cattail, and the threatened spring-loving centaury.

“Hopefully, in the next couple years, we’ll have some real good stream bank projects going on,” Marie Noel said.

Whatever the long-term effects of more extreme weather are, Mervin Wright, the director of the Pyramid Lake Fisheries, said he’ll continue the decades-long work of the tribe to protect the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui suckers for future generations. The high flows into Pyramid Lake provided a greater opportunity for the native fish to enter the Truckee River, which was once cut off from the lake after a badly planned dam blocked water flow. It’s not every year the lake gets some 500,000 acre feet of water, and how many fish manage to spawn thanks to the extra flow of water won’t be clear for years.

“There’s not a lot of data for a year like this. Hopefully, it will drive our knowledge,” Wright said.

He chuckles, “Nature’s going to prevail.”

It’s the same for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe in Death Valley. 

“Everybody’s talking about planting more vegetation now,” said Mandi Campbell, the historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe.

Last year, a flash flood left about a thousand people stranded in the Death Valley National Park. The tribe’s village was flooded too, leaving residents to set up sandbags overnight as water came up to people’s yards. They were more prepared this summer when Tropical Storm Hilary brought massive floods, including a stronger relationship with the U.S. National Park Service to get alerts days before a storm arrives.

“It was just crazy last year compared to this year,” Campbell said.

The tribe hopes to build a diversion surrounded by native plant species that can trap floodwater and slowly guide excess water to the mesquite grove they manage.

 “We don’t want to put anything else. We don’t want barricades. We want it as natural as it can be. It’s a desert and we want to keep it a desert,” Campbell said.

This series was made possible with a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources