Water Sector in the Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan

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Photo by Kim Paul.

The Water chapter of the 2018 Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan (BCCAP) is one of eight chapters created for the first formal, multi-sector climate change adaptation planning effort in the Blackfeet Nation, following the process described here. The Water chapter was developed through meetings with managers from the Blackfeet Environmental Office and then revised through face-to-face, telephone, and email correspondence.The first two sections, observed impacts and expected impacts, are sets of working hypotheses about climate change that are based on day-to-day observations and/or interpretations of climate change literature (e.g. the Montana Climate Assessment). These hypotheses were formed for the purposes of assessing climate change vulnerability and then strategizing adaptation goals and actions. This and other sections of the plan will be revisited and updated periodically as action items are implemented and adaptation efforts produce insights for future planning.

The goal of the Water Sector is to focus on planning to maintain water quantity and quality. This goal is important for maintaining sufficient water for municipal water use, irrigation, in-stream wildlife uses, recreation, and livestock water use. Water quality standards support drinkable, swimmable, and fishable waters, and attention is given to both surface and ground water, including wells. Water quantity management is under the jurisdiction of Water Resources Department, while water quality is under the jurisdiction of the Blackfeet Environmental Office (BEO). Water Quality Standards are under the BEO Water Quality Department. They are draft standards which mostly match federal standards, they default jurisdictionally until BEO receives delegation authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They are tribally approved. Water uses are under the jurisdiction of the Water Resources Department, now that the Water Compact has been approved. Amounts and operation may need to be worked out between the tribe and the federal government. Sherburne Dam operations need to be fixed to protect fish (Bull Trout) from dewatering.

Observed Impacts                           

More frequent and severe winds in the spring have already been observed. There are big downpours, but they dry up quickly because of the winds and warmer temperatures. There are no long-term changes noted at the local level yet.

Expected Impacts

In general, climate change is expected to decrease both water quantity and quality. Climate change will increase water temperatures in lakes and streams, and lower levels of dissolved oxygen. Warmer water temperatures increase fish disease concerns. Increased temperature and lower water levels may cause the migration of tolerant fish and macroinvertebrate species into areas that were habitat for more intolerant species. Macroinvertebrates are a key indicator of water quality, as some can handle worse water quality, while others need higher water quality. Climate change is expected to stress macroinvertebrates.

Climate change will also change the hydrograph by increasing variation in the rates of water flow timing, for example the timing of peak runoff may impact fish spawning. More water may enter the system in the spring than it has in the past, pulsing through the system more quickly, with lower flows in the summer. Warmer temperatures may also not be conducive to cold-water species’ egg survivability.

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Upper Two-Medicine. Photo by Kim Paul.

Spring time floods may impact drinking water through erosion and sedimentation. While groundwater-fed communities might not be affected, communities fed by surface flows, like those drawing from Cutbank Creek, may experience poor water quality. Currently, sediment ponds at Cutbank Creek can be used to divert water when they know a sediment pulse is coming. Increased flood risk also raises risk of sewage overflow, posing health and safety risks from spreading contaminants. Recently, big floods, like the 2011 flood, have damaged infrastructure. Bigger floods in the future might cause damage to areas that are currently considered relatively safe from floods. Climate change may affect the riparian ecosystem and cause vegetation and stream geomorphology changes. Stream banks may not be able to contain floods and erosion, leading to a domino effect.

Changes in water quality and quantity will impact livestock water use and rangeland habitat, with changes in forage productivity and haying practices. It will also impact wildlife water use, and lead to poorer habitat. Less water may increase salinity. Too much salinity is bad for livestock to drink as water gets more concentrated with dissolved salts. Wildlife are generally able to migrate away from water with high salinity but forced migration can cause them stress.

There is an increased risk of invasive species as water flows change and disturbances change. Bluegreen algae, didymosphenia, and zebra mussels are examples of species that could invade waterways as water warms and has more nutrients from agricultural practices and other sources of pollution.

Thermal fish kills could result from temperature highs and increased parasites that are tolerant to warm water increase. Dewatering aquifers causes reduced return flows to streams resulting in dewatered streams, especially late in the season after snow has melted. Water loss in reservoirs and streams will increase due to evapo-transpiration as the temperatures of air and water increase. Leaky pipes can burden storm water and sewer systems by the inflow of groundwater.

Quantified water rights may change as less water is available to junior users. Conflict and water theft are issues. Instream flows must be maintained to protect species of important. Water storage in the Blackfeet Nation, both natural and constructed, should be a priority for policy makers , otherwise, water will flow to downstream users. Uses for water need to be developed and recorded, as in the Draft Water Quality Standards document. Examples of uses that need to be considered are recreation, irrigation, cultural, wildlife, aquatic life, domestic, etc. “Use or lose.”

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Pristine Headwaters flowing from Miistaksis “From Mountaintop to Mountaintop”, Many Glacier. Photo by Mya Davis.
Water Assessment

The timeframe for impacts begins now and extends into the future, as some of the expected impacts are already being observed. The location of concern is Blackfeet Nation-wide. However, it is important to note that there is a rain gradient extending across the Blackfeet Nation, moving from more precipitation in the west to less precipitation in the eastern section. The rain gradient is expected to hold even as the climate changes. All life stages of salmonids, except spawning, would generally be supported in the eastern half of the Blackfeet Nation.

Probability of Impacts to maintaining Water Quality and Quantity


Potential Consequences of Impacts
From a social standpoint, potential consequences are medium to high. Closures to recreation due to algal blooms pose a concern. Less drinking water could be a (high) consequence.

Potential consequences to culture are medium. Low water flows impact quality relocation sites for sweat lodges. Changes can impact culturally important wetland and floodplain plants.

Consequences for the economy are predicted to be high. Consequences include costs to irrigation, saline seeps, fishing charges, water treatment, and less water supply. Impacts to agricultural economics are high, as people may have to buy hay, sell cattle to decrease stock, and haul water. Grazing allotments on public lands may be impacted, and fees for cattle grazing (animal unit months) may change. Land prices may be impacted. Impacts to recreation-based tourism may have large economic consequences.

Finally, from a legal perspective, consequences are predicted to be low-medium.

Water storage could be used to generate electricity. When tied to wind power, a water use cycle is created via “pumped hydro”.

The tribe needs to focus the water resources branch into management of water use, in other words, have a water master and a hydrologist to oversee the vast resource of water from the compact in the amount of 800,000-acre-feet of water per year.


The exposure is medium to high.

Sensitivity is medium. The western side of the Blackfeet Nation is more sensitive to changes in climate, while the eastern side is more adaptive to change and less sensitive. More information is needed about thresholds; if species are on the edge of what they can tolerate, then they may be affected. Some species may be very sensitive to climate impacts during particular times of year, or particular times of their life history.

Adaptive Capacity
Adaptive capacity is low, though it depends on  the quality of the habitat, human land use impacts, and other factors. It may vary from place to place.

Vulnerability is high on the western side of the Blackfeet Nation, and it is low on the eastern side. Vulnerability will depend on species-level tolerance for the changes.


Estimated Risk
The estimated risk is high on the western side of the Blackfeet Nation, and low to medium on the eastern side.

Priority is medium to high.

Water Adaptation Strategies: Goals and Actions

Responsible Party
Blackfeet Environmental Office

Purpose (Goals)
1) Reduce the frequency of higher-intensity floods in order to reduce erosion, property damage, and habitat damage or change
2) Assess floodplain to mitigate future property damage
3) Ensure that downstream users have access to sufficient water flows and water quality

The priority for maintaining water quality and quantity is high.

Preparedness Goals: Strategies and Actions

Goal 1: Reduce the frequency of higher-intensity floods in order to reduce erosion, property damage, and habitat damage or change

a) Promote wetlands, floodplains, and riparian area health because they offer capacity to mitigate floodwater and filter and store water

1) Protect key wetlands, restore wetlands, and divert water to wetlands in order to boost water storage and groundwater recharge
2) Identify degraded riparian areas and employ stream restoration and beaver mimicry work, where appropriate
3) Live trap and relocate beavers to restore wetlands

Goal 2: Assess floodplain to mitigate future property damage

a) Assess floodplain to mitigate future property damage
b) Utilize mapping software (e.g. Global Information Systems) to better understand the geographical setting of the watershed

1) Map the floodplain
2) Map channel migration (how a river may move in the future)
3) Enhance mapping and monitoring of water use across reservations
4) Chart water wells, septic systems, water extraction sites, stock water reservoirs, and oil wells

Goal 3: Ensure that downstream users have access to sufficient water flows and water quality

a) Promote regeneration of aquifers through strategic water storage, irrigation, and land use

1) Build reservoirs
2) Work with farmers and ranchers to reduce use of pesticides
3) Conserve water through better irrigation practices (i.e. use as tool to spread water out to recharge shallow aquifers)
4) Employ snow fences to trap snow
5) Identify water saving techniques (i.e. low flow toilets, rain-water capture)

Required and Existing Authority/Capacity
Planning for all future concerns needs to start immediately. It is important to set a five-year plan. Authorities and capacities already exist within the Tribe. They include the Water Resources Department (water use permitting for all uses), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Agriculture Department, the Housing Authority, the Tribal Council, and schools. Potential partners within and outside the Tribe include: the Blackfeet Environmental Office, Blackfeet Water Resources, the Blackfeet Land Department, School District 9, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Blackfeet Community College, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Indian Health Services, and non-governmental organizations.

Partners and Potential Funding Sources
There are many potential funding needs. Storage dams are one example of a need. Millions will be needed. The US government and the State of Montana are two potential funding sources.

Go to the next section: Wildlife

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