Gila River Indian Community Preparing for Climate Change – Getting Informed, Getting Involved

December 2, 2016


Department of Environmental Quality


The climate is changing. Air temperatures are rising. Wildfires in the West are increasing, and droughts in the Colorado River Basin are expected to become more frequent, longer, and more severe. This past July was Earth’s hottest month in recorded history, according to NASA, the 10th record hot month in a row. All of these changes have long-term implications for the Gila River Indian Community’s water, food, lifestyle, and culture. Gila River, however, is getting ready. GRIC’s Department of Environmental Quality (GRIC DEQ) is leading the process of developing a strategic Climate Change Adaptation & Resiliency Plan for the Community. In doing so, Gila River is leading the way, being among the first tribes in the region to complete such a plan. It is no small task and the Department encourages everyone interested to assist in the project and join the Climate Change Adaptation & Resiliency Planning Team.


On Nov. 4 and 5, as part of its planning process, the GRIC DEQ hosted a climate change workshop titled “Understanding Potential Impacts and Identifying Solutions” at the Huhugam Heritage Center. It was Part 2 of a two-part workshop series hosted by the Department. The first workshop took place on September 23rd-24th, and focused primarily on introducing climate change in general and scratching the surface in regards to how the climate has been changing within the Community. Workshop Part 2’s focus was on how the climate has changed, what local impacts have been felt within the Community, and what needs to be done to ensure the people in the Community are able to adapt and thrive from a public health, cultural, and economical standpoint.


A diverse group of Community members and leaders attended the workshop. Everyone who attended shared their experiences, knowledge, and perspectives, which enriched the experience for all, and provided a foundation for GRIC climate change adaptation & resiliency planning. Among those who attended were Lieutenant Governor Monica Antone, Councilman Robert Stone (District 5), Billy Allen, and Akin Gump attorney and former GRIC General Counsel Rod Lewis, who provided insight on the Community’s water supply, specifically explaining the Community’s water rights and the potential impacts climate change can have on the water supply.


University of Arizona professor, Dr. Karletta Chief, gave a presentation about drought planning and the implications drought can have on the southwest and most notably Native Communities in the Southwest. Dr. Chief, a member of the Navajo Nation, gave a presentation that was engaging, technical, and extremely relevant since GRIC is no stranger to the arid climate. Dr. Chief emphasized the importance of focusing on drought planning now since the southwest region, including GRIC, is already experiencing a warmer climate, and is predicted to face increasing intensity and length of drought periods.  


There were many climate-related areas of concern expressed by the attendees of the workshop. Some of the key concerns were air and water quality, and food and water supply. Traditional knowledge was also an area of concern. Climate change is a complex topic that affects the whole Community, so the whole Community must take part in addressing it. Community Elder Willardene Lewis mentioned, “We [Community] have great potential, we need to kick start it somehow.” It was acknowledged that workshops and plans are a step in the right direction, but for the efforts to reflect all aspects and interests of the Community, then everyone living and working within the Community must join the effort.    


At the end of the first night of the workshop, the attendees were asked to bring an item of significance the next day that they cherished and that has been affected by climate change. One of the items brought was devil’s claw or “ihug,” which was brought by Councilman Stone. It is a plant used to make baskets and is one of the plants that Councilman Stone routinely plants in his garden. In years past, the plants grew back from the seeds that were left from the previous harvest. However, now animals have been eating the seeds and the plant itself since they don’t have as much to eat as they used to in years past. The devil’s claw he brought in showed evidence of this and are smaller in recent years due to the lack of water and depletion of the soil.


The next steps for GRIC DEQ include starting to draft a Climate Change Adaptation and Resiliency Plan for the Community. The feedback provided in both workshops will serve as a framework for a vulnerability assessment and provide guidance for what needs to be prioritized in the Plan. GRIC DEQ will also meet with elders to learn about the changes they’ve witnessed in their lifetime and gain their understanding of how traditional knowledge can play a key role in the planning process. GRIC DEQ will meet with various departments within the Community to develop a comprehensive plan that accurately reflects the Community’s concerns.


Climate change will affect everyone and GRIC DEQ wishes to ensure all voices are heard and include everyone who lives and works in the Community. If you want to learn more about the Community’s Climate Change Adaptation & Resiliency Planning, or wish to take part in this project, please visit or contact Althea Walker at or (520) 562-2234.