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Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act could help communities on the front line of climate change

Rising sea levels caused by global warming hit coastal communities the hardest. In Washington,many of those communities are tribes that settled near the water long before climate change became an issue. A new bill moving through Congress aims to provide them with more relief.  

The Tribal Coastal Resiliency Actwould provide dedicated funding to help tribes impacted by climate change. The bill's prime sponsor is Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer.

“I represent a district that has 11 native American tribes," he said. "Four of them are coastal tribes that are in the process of trying to move to higher ground."

Kilmer, a Democrat from Gig Harbor whose district includes the Olympic Peninsula, says he has bi-partisan support for the legislation. It recently passed out of the House.

He says it appeals to both parties because there’s a gut-level understanding of the need from communities impacted by more severe storms and rising seas. When he testified about the bill in Congress, he used a recent picture from the Quinault village of Taholah.

“And it showed a gentleman rowing a canoe," Kilmer said. "And it wasn’t rowing a canoe on a lake or on a river. He was rowing the canoe through the streets of his village."  

Taholah is relocating, one of many responses to climate change impacts that Kilmer's legislation would better support, if it passes the Senate.  

The bill goes further than simply providing dedicated funds for grants related to addressing climate issues for tribes. It also gives them direct access to emergency resources from the federal government, rather than having states as a passthrough to administer the grants.

Quinault president Fawn Sharp, who also is president of the National Congress of American Indians, says this addresses a sovereignty issue that is overdue.

“A tribal nation facing a threat should be able to on their own declare a state of emergency and then have a direct link to our trustee, for relief during those times of emergency – as opposed to having to go through a sub-national organization that has no direct trust responsibility to us,” Sharp said.

The Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act says if tribes don't need the dedicated funding, states can then access the money. It passed the House as part of a package of legislationto combat climate change and protect coastal communities, including a bill to reauthorize the National Sea Grant College Program.  The University of Washington and Western Washington University are major beneficiaries of that program.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to