Researchers help tribes enhance drought and climate resilience

Assembled for hands-on training on producing the Wind River Climate and Drought Summary were, from left, Rollin Ware, Natalie Umphlett, Al C’Bearing, Crystal Stiles, Kenneth Ferris, Martha Shulski, Mark Svoboda, Nicole Wall and Brian Fuchs.
Assembled for hands-on training on producing the Wind River Climate and Drought Summary were, from left, Rollin Ware, Natalie Umphlett, Al C’Bearing, Crystal Stiles, Kenneth Ferris, Martha Shulski, Mark Svoboda, Nicole Wall and Brian Fuchs.

UNL scientists are part of a coalition helping two American Indian tribes prepare for drought and other climate fluctuations.

The tribes — the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, both located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming — have worked with climate and social scientists in the past year to prepare regular climate and drought summaries for use in making water and resource decisions. A second phase, launched this summer, includes UNL's Cody Knutson and will generate a vulnerability assessment designed to help the tribes reduce the likelihood of future drought-related impacts.

Knutson, a research associate professor of natural resources and part of the UNL-based National Drought Mitigation Center, is leading the work with Shannon McNeeley of Colorado State University and the North Central Climate Science Center.

The work is funded by a two-year grant from the Department of Interior North Central Climate Research Center. Both current and future generations of tribal decision-makers will be involved, finding ways to integrate scientific and traditional knowledge. The ultimate goal is that this information will be used to inform the development of a reservation-wide drought plan.

Mitchel Cottenoir, water engineer for the tribes, said the new project will put valuable tools in the hands of the Wind River Water Resources Control Board, which is charged with administering the water rights on the reservation and balancing water resources for the 15 equally important beneficial uses of water that are identified in the Wind River water code.

"We're going to have trigger points, and be able to gauge where we are, so we can be prepared and have water for all of the reservation," Cottenoir said. "Agriculture is just one of 15 beneficial uses in our water code. Water is also used in cultural and religious ceremonies."

Water for domestic use has also been an issue at times on the reservation, as scant surface supplies have resulted in community members having to boil water before use, Cottenoir said.

Top drought-related concerns that tribal members cited in interviews with Shannon McNeeley, a social scientist with Colorado State University and the North Central Climate Science Center, included having enough water for ranching and grazing livestock, for irrigation, for fish and fisheries, and for wildlife. Drought also affects subsistence activities, such as harvesting berries and hunting and fishing, and ceremonies and rituals. People were also concerned about decisions made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and by various state and federal agencies.

"A primary goal of this project is to be a model for real co-production of science with the tribes from end-to-end, starting with working with them on the proposal development phase, integrating local knowledge and observations with the science, developing decision support tools like the drought summary, and ultimately informing their development of a drought plan," McNeeley said.

An integral part of the new project is involving youth and young professionals, who will be working with water supply issues in the future.

"They'll be dealing with water supply issues when the rest of us have moved on," Cottenoir said. "We're bringing young people along, and getting them involved."

This project builds on a preceding year of effort that included many meetings, workshops, and webinars at Wind River Reservation, which resulted in the quarterly Wind River Climate and Drought Summary, with regular production shifting into the hands of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes that share the reservation. A hands-on training on how to produce the summary was held in mid-July on UNL's East Campus.

"We want the climate summary to be a valuable tool to the agricultural community," Cottenoir said. "(In drought years) crops burn up in the field, especially if there's no water, as in some cases, past the Fourth of July. We're just trying to provide them the best possible information so they can prepare and decide which crops they're going to plant, and know if they're going to have to get into a conservation mode, and what time frame that's going to be, rather than waiting until there’s no water in the ditch."

The climate and drought summary can be of use across and beyond the reservation. Cottenoir said his office is developing a website. He also shares it via email with surrounding irrigation districts, and is exploring distribution options such as inserting it into local newspapers.

The National Integrated Drought Information System supported development of the climate and drought summary. The High Plains Regional Climate Center and the National Drought Mitigation Center, both at UNL, and the North Central Climate Science Center, worked with tribal water decision-makers and technicians as the summary was being created.

"The climate summary is an invaluable tool for decision-makers because it condenses a vast amount of climate information into a simple format with non-technical language that is intended for a general audience," said Crystal Stiles, an applied climatologist at the High Plains Regional Climate Center who helped create the summary. "It provides a snapshot of climate, water, and drought conditions from the previous season, as well as what can be expected during the next season. The greatest challenge in creating the climate summary is being mindful of the language and jargon used that a general audience may not have been exposed to, so feedback from decision-makers has been extremely valuable."

Co-investigators on the vulnerability assessment are Mitchel Cottenoir, at the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes Office of the Tribal Water Engineer, Jennifer Wellman, with the Wyoming Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (ESPCoR, on the Wind River Reservation), and Mark Svoboda at the National Drought Mitigation Center. Gary Collins, former tribal water engineer, and Al C'Bearing (Office of the Tribal Water Engineer) and staff members at the National Drought Mitigation Center also serve on the project management team.

Additional collaborating organizations include the High Plains Regional Climate Center, the National Integrated Drought Information System, the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and its Northern Plains Regional Climate Hub, the University of Wyoming, the U.S. Geological Survey's University of Wyoming Cooperative Unit, the Wyoming State Climate Office, Wind River Community 4-H, and the Western Water Assessment.

For more information about collaborators and the project's advisory committee, visit

— Kelly Helm Smith, National Drought Mitigation Center