Tulalips, scientists push for local efforts on climate issues

TULALIP — It’s a question of priorities and a group of scientists and policy makers wants to make sure theirs aren’t lost with a new presidential administration.

A workshop earlier this week on the Tulalip Indian Reservation focused on the coming “coastal squeeze,” a reference to communities and ecosystems likely to feel the combined effects of rising seas on one side and vastly altered rain and river flow patterns on the other.

A significant undercurrent to the event was how valuable work restoring shorelines, estuaries and watersheds was going to move forward when the incoming leadership in Washington, D.C., is likely to have different goals.

Will Stelle, the former Northwest Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, provided one bit of advice to the assembled career scientists and researchers.

“Go local. Don’t wait for Washington, D.C.,” Stelle said.

Stelle advised that the federal government likely will spend the next couple of years just adjusting to the change in administration, so he urged his colleagues not to overreact.

“Reaffirm good science as one of our core competencies. Don’t get distracted by all the noise,” Stelle said. “Own what you do and make it happen.”

But “going local,” which involves better coordination and local leadership for projects that have come to rely on federal funding, brings its own set of challenges.

Brad Warren, the executive director of Global Ocean Health, a Seattle nonprofit, said that for all of the work being done to restore ecosystems across the region, they were still only about one-third of the way toward achieving the Puget Sound Partnership’s 2020 goals for salmon restoration.

“We’re not going to get there,” he said. “We’re way too slow. We need to speed it up.”

The gathering was the third workshop convened by the Tulalips this year that sought to build connections between government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to take on environmental challenges. The first focused exclusively on the threat of rising sea levels, while the second was geared toward making communities more resilient to a changing environment.

The coming “coastal squeeze” will most acutely be felt in the estuaries of the region’s river systems, which provide critical habitat for salmon and other species and serve as natural buffers to seasonal flooding.

Those estuaries, which often are surrounded by urban areas, also will bear the brunt of rising sea levels and disrupted precipitation patterns.

Several estuaries have been the focus of restoration work in the Puget Sound region, such as the Nisqually, Skokomish, Quilcene and the Tulalips’ Qwuloolt project on the Snohomish River.

Those restored estuaries are only a fraction of the thousands of acres of estuary that have been lost to development over the decades, said Paul Cereghino, a restoration ecologist with the NOAA Restoration Center in Seattle.

“They can’t be anywhere else, they’re irreplaceable,” he said. “We know each one of them and each is unique.”

Samuel Georgian, a scientist with the Seattle nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute, presented data that showed that under every scenario of sea level rise considered somewhat likely, the Snohomish River estuary would change significantly.

Under what’s now considered the best possible outcome, with seas rising an average of half a meter by 2100, much of the estuary stretching upriver toward the city of Snohomish could become saltwater marshland, especially if the aging dike system is breached intentionally, as was the case in Qwuloolt, or allowed to fail.

“A lot of the dikes in this area are relatively incomplete and likely to be over-topped in sea level rise, or have water come in through the gaps,” Georgian said.

In the most extreme scenario, a 3-meter rise in sea level by 2100, the estuary would be flooded completely at high tide or during storm surges.

Preparing for those kinds of challenges without significant federal help requires developing committed local leadership that is able to work with communities over the long-term.

“We really do have to build the capacity to work locally on these issues,” said Paul Dye, an assistant director of Washington Sea Grant, an outreach arm of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment.

State and federal officials can only operate at larger scales, and community engagement is by definition a local undertaking, he said.

“Where that engagement occurs, it’s successful,” Dye said.

That was the experience with the 385-acre Qwuloolt Estuary project, which took 21 years to complete.

Josh Meidav, the Tulalips’ conservation science program manager, said the team worked with the local community over many years to build trust. To reach people, project staff even went knocking on doors in Marysville near the project site, he said.

“Sometimes it just takes project managers lurking around neighborhoods,” Meidav said.

Even then, said Kurt Nelson, Tulalip’s environmental division manager, the tribes needed to take a long-term approach because that was the only way to build up the goodwill among all the participants.

“There were several landowners who didn’t want to work with the Tulalip Tribes,” Nelson said. “We had to figure out who they would collaborate with, and involve them.”

Terry Williams, the Tulalip treaty rights commissioner, said the intent of the workshop was to look at coming changes that might not be stoppable, and find a way to extract some fruitful results out of them.

That will only come with a renewed commitment to their work.

“There isn’t a road map for any of this,” Williams said. “You not only have to know it, you have to believe it.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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