Prevent flooding or move is an option for the Chitimacha Tribe.

A Louisiana tribe under threat from flooding, storms and rising seas will receive a federal grant aimed at helping Native American communities adapt to climate change or move to safer ground. The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana was awarded $5 million as part of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ greatly expanded efforts to assist tribes severely affected by climate-related environmental threats. The 945-acre Chitimacha reservation, which sits on a tight bend on Bayou Teche between New Iberia and Morgan City, faces threats of flooding from two fronts: the coast, about 10 miles to the south, and the Atchafalaya River, immediately to the north. The grant could be used to plan ways for tribal members to safely stay put or the tribe could mount a community-scale relocation effort like the one the state led for Isle de Jean Charles, a mostly tribal community in Terrebonne Parish. Chitimacha leaders were unavailable to comment on their plans for the grant and the bureau had no additional details. While it’s unclear how the tribe may spend the money, a 2020 report by the bureau highlighted several climate-related concerns and proposed projects at the Chitimacha reservation.

The tribe lives near an old flood gate that is welded shut.

About a mile from the reservation is the Charenton Floodgate, a rusted, nearly 80-year-old structure that’s that’s been welded and chained shut but remains the lowest point on the West Atchafalaya Basin Levee system. “If the gate fails to hold, the tribal nation would be flooded with the contents of the Atchafalaya Basin at Grand Lake,” the report said. “Lives, homes, government buildings … would be decimated.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has mulled options for replacing the floodgate for more than a decade. The gate’s age has earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places and made replacing it complicated. The tribe backs a plan that would keep the old gate as a secondary barrier while building a new gate nearby. The project’s estimated cost of $60 million has yet to be fully funded. The tribe’s water supply is also at risk from climate change. Harder rainfall has increased erosion and agricultural runoff, pushing more sediment and contaminants into the intake pipes from which the reservation draws its drinking water. The bureau gave the tribe $10,000 to unclog the intakes, but the issue is a perpetual and worsening one, and water contamination from farming chemicals is likely to increase unabated, the report says. The tribe hopes to resolve its water woes with a new well that taps into the Chicot aquifer. But a well, filtration system and storage tanks could cost up to $1 million. The tribe has proposed marsh creation and shoreline restoration projects that would help protect it from rising seas and a growing number of strong storms and hurricanes. But the projects, which require state and federal backing, have been stalled due to lack of funding, the bureau report said.

The money is to help tribes that are recognized by the Federal government to adapt to the change made by climate change.

Other tribes receiving similar $5 million grants are in Alaska, California, Arizona and Maine. The grants are part of a much larger effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to boost climate adaptation in tribal communities. Last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a massive bipartisan law putting billions of dollars into roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure, includes $216 million to help tribes cope with climate change. Of that funding, about $130 million is earmarked for community relocations. The Inflation Reduction Act gave the bureau another $220 million for climate adaptation, including a $40 million allotment from which the Chitimacha are receiving their planning grant. The Chitimacha tribe is one of four federally-recognized tribes in Louisiana. It has about 1,300 members, many of whom live off the reservation.  Before the arrival of Europeans, the Chitimacha occupied about one-third of present-day Louisiana, from Lafayette to New Orleans and all of the Atchafalaya Basin. Wars with the French took a heavy toll on the tribe, as did aggressive land claims by the American government, which whittled tribal lands down to a few hundred acres along Bayou Teche. The reservation was created in 1916 with the help of the powerful family behind Tabasco hot sauce. The McIlhennys of Avery Island were collectors and promotors of Chitimacha basket weaving, an art form the tribe’s website extols as the “crown jewel of the Chitimacha cultural tradition.” Today, the reservation has a tribally-run casino, hotel, RV park and construction company that help support a school, health clinic, police department, fire department, and museum. The tribe recently developed software to help members learn Sitimaxa, the Chitimacha language.

The key to the funding is to be recognized, a long process.

Louisiana tribe funded for move
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