How a Northwestern tribe aims to keep its cool as its glaciers melt

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To many residents, the missing snow and ice from the volcanoes looming on the horizon were shocking. For others, it threatened their way of life.

The extremely hot summer of 2021 foreshadowed how unchecked climate change could wreak havoc on the fish that depend on cold water and the people who depend on those fish.

In Whatcom County, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes are taking action to counter the great melt and keep their salmon and crops alive.

Nooksack tribe glacier researchers walk through a snowfield on their way to the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker.

John Ryan / KUOW

At the end of the century, there will still be ice, but it will be right at the top of the mountain, ”said Oliver Grah, Nooksack Tribe water resources manager, while pausing in documenting the withdrawal. from the Sholes Glacier.

Streams of meltwater flowed over its sloping icy surface where Grah, in a t-shirt and crampons, and his colleagues documented the thinning of the ice: 5 inches in a week in late September. It cleared up to about 7 feet over the summer.

So far, the Sholes are one of 13 named glaciers on Mount Baker, Washington’s third highest peak.

“Where we are right here, there will only be bare rock,” Grah said.

He said there is not much the tribe, or anyone else, can do to prevent the glaciers from melting, at least in the short term. Instead, the tribe tries to deal with it.

“Our team is focusing more on adaptation and resilience,” he said.

Related: Read Part 1 of the Mount Baker Glaciers series.

The Nooksack River originates in the glaciers of the North Cascades, tumbles through lush evergreen forests, then winds past berry farms and pastures in the lowlands of Whatcom County.

These are actually three rivers — the North, Middle, and South Forks — which merge into one.

All around Puget Sound, salmon runs have been hit by habitat loss, pollution, overfishing and global warming. Perhaps the hardest hit was the river descents: the South Fork Nooksack.

Puget Sound Chinook Salmon, federally listed as endangered since 1999, are closer to extinction in the South Fork than in any other river.

In 2013, only 10 chinooks – the largest salmon in the Pacific and the staple food of the Northwest’s endangered orcas – returned to South Fork.

As the salmon move up the South Fork, they are clearly visible, even when their fins are not protruding from the water.

Nooksack tribe researchers document the flow of Sholes Creek from the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker.

Nooksack tribe researchers document the flow of Sholes Creek from the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker.

John Ryan / KUOW

Unlike other Nooksack forks, the South Fork is not glacier powered. As a result, its water is clear and warmer than the other forks with their milky glacier runoff.

“You don’t have that cooling effect of the contribution of melting glaciers to the river,” Grah said.

Careful observers have known for generations this essential difference between rivers.

The Nooksack language name for South Fork and the village that once existed at its mouth is Nuxw7íyem, or Still Clear Water. The Nooksack name of Middle Fork and its village, Nuxwt’íqw’em, reflects the glacial origins of this river: water that is always cloudy.

Dark melting glaciers have helped protect the eight species of salmon and trout in the North and Middle Forks, all of which rely on cold water, from the ravages of climate change.

During June’s record-breaking heat wave, when the town of Nooksack hit 106 degrees, the water temperature in South Fork rose 5 degrees while the North Fork rose only about 1 degree , according to Mauri Pelto, glacier researcher at Nichols College.

The main course of the Nooksack River runs past Abby Yates’ backyard in Everson. She says the river where she and her Nooksack ancestors all lived behaved in ways she had never seen before this summer.

Max Hannah (left) and Oliver Grah measure the ablation (thinning) of the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker on September 23, 2021.

Max Hannah (left) and Oliver Grah measure the ablation (thinning) of the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker on September 23, 2021.

John Ryan / KUOW

“It was a cloudy, muddy mess raging through August, which was very strange,” Yates said. “I feel like we might be seeing more melting from this glacier.”

Pelto says the Sholes Glacier, near the North Fork springs, has lost at least 25% of its volume since 1990, with the melting accelerating over the past eight years. He estimates that it lost 6% of its volume in the summer of 2021 alone.

As glaciers and mountain snowpack shrink, they lose their ability to keep rivers cool, and researchers expect the North and Middle Forks to have the same problems in the decades to come as the south fork.

Melting snow and ice allow many rivers in the Northwest to flow and stay relatively cool each summer.

Half or more of North Fork Nooksack’s flow in August is a liquefied glacier.

“Our snowpack essentially serves as nature’s water bottle,” said Harriet Morgan, a climate researcher at the University of Washington. “It allows us to store water when we have too much, in the winter, and then it provides us with this nice reservoir in the summer when we don’t get that summer rainfall. “

Without this reservoir, we get “more water when we don’t need it and less when we need it,” according to Morgan.

In September, 2,500 chinook salmon died in South Fork before they could spawn. Lummi Nation biologists say heat-loving bacteria killed the majority of these endangered species in the hot, slow-flowing river.

“We don’t have the snowpack to keep the water cool enough for the salmon,” said Lisa Wilson, Lummi Nation council member.

Nooksack officials say rapid changes at the higher peaks of the Nooksack Basin require changes in the rest of the watershed.

Mount Baker at dusk

Mount Baker at dusk

John Ryan / KUOW

“There is nothing we can do about the recession of the glaciers and the change in flow and temperature due to the retreating glaciers,” Grah said. “That’s why we need to take a more watershed-based approach to encourage greater flow during the summer. “

Salmon conservation efforts have traditionally focused on the number of fish that can be caught and the habitat in which they must grow, migrate and spawn.

The Nooksack Tribe’s Natural Resources Department has planted over 50 acres of trees to provide refreshing shade along the banks of streams and rivers. The state’s salmon recovery plan for the basin says it needs an additional 2,300 acres of riparian forest for threatened salmon to recover.

The tribe also designed hundreds of ice jams along the banks of the Nooksack Rivers.

“Traffic jams provide deeper pools for the salmon to rest and cooler temperatures so they can make their way to their spawning grounds,” said Ross Cline Jr., Nooksack Tribe member and head of planning.

The Nooksack and Lummi tribes helped the town of Bellingham and its partners remove a dam on the Nooksack Middle Fork in 2020, providing access to 16 miles of spawning grounds that salmon had not reached in 60 years. Federal scientists estimate that removing the dam could increase Nooksack River chinook populations by a third.

Restoring salmon habitat can be less complicated than making sure they have enough water.

The Nooksack River supplies water to much of Whatcom County and supports agricultural production of $ 370 million a year, most in western Washington, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Water rights disputes have simmered in the Nooksack Basin for more than 20 years, as rural and urban demands to use a finite resource have increased. In May, the state legislature funded a legal process known as adjudication to settle conflicting Nooksack water claims.

We don’t expect a resolution to come anytime soon. The Washington Department of Ecology estimates that it will take 10 to 20 years for the final resolution of all water rights. The bidding process leaves the door open for tribes and farmers to negotiate earlier on how much water should be left in the stream for salmon.

South Fork’s lands have been heavily exploited, with clearcuts and young trees dominating its modern landscape, leaving not only less shade but less water for salmon streams.

Grah says a young forest of fast-growing trees sucks up more water in the summer, when rivers run out.

He wants to let the forests of the Nooksack Basin age before cutting them, or not cut them at all, in order to help the Nooksack salmon survive climate change.

“This would increase the flow of the Nooksack River and compensate for future climate impacts,” Grah said.

It could also help absorb carbon emissions that heat the planet and melt glaciers in the first place.

Morgan, the University of Washington climatologist who works with the Nooksack Tribe, said the tribe is a national leader in climate adaptation: preparing for what cannot be avoided.

The north side of Mount Baker in Washington in August 1981 (above) and September 13, 2021 (below)

The north side of Mount Baker in Washington in August 1981 (above) and September 13, 2021 (below)

Alain Fritzberg

But there is a problem.

While Northwestern tribes have treaty rights to co-manage fisheries with state governments, managing land beyond the shores is another story.

The Nooksack Tribe controls almost none of the 500,000 acres in the Nooksack Basin. Despite the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855, the tribe was not recognized by the federal government until 1973.

Today, it has a reserve of 2.2 hectares.

Cline Jr. says the latter actually shocks people from other tribes when he speaks at conferences.

“Then people would come up to me and say, ‘Did I hear you right? Did you say 2.2 acres? Yes, that’s all we have for the reservation.

The federal government also holds approximately 2,400 acres in trust for the tribe and its members. These trust lands are scattered in small plots throughout the Nooksack Basin.

“It’s just a lot of wasted opportunities for tribe members to be so limited to various small areas up and down the river,” Cline said.

Today, the tribe, which has around 2,000 registered members, is struggling to buy back some of its long-lost land, with salmon among the main beneficiaries.

With the Whatcom and Evergreen Land Trusts, the tribe aims to create a lightly logged 6,000 acre community forest along the South Fork. They began to raise funds to purchase the first 500 acres of the Stewart Mountain Community Forest.

If the project is successful, it could leave more water in the river and help give the Nooksack Salmon a fighting chance in a warming world.


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