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Workshop fosters communication between tribal, state, and federal agencies

Published Aug. 23, 2019

Seated at the head table, a panel address attendees regarding flooding hazards and communication issues facing tribes and government agencies. From left are, Anita Huff, Blue Lake Tribe, Dean Baker, Yurok Tribe, Denise Shemenski, California Office of Emergency Services, and Kathleen Zontos, National Weather Service.


Patricia Fontanet, a Water Resources Planner with Sacramento District, speaks as part of a panel on the topic of Watershed Long-Term Planning Opportunities during the Flood Preparedness and Emergency Management Resources Workshop for Tribes held Aug. 13 in Blue Lake, California.


Sacramento District’s Dr. Seth Cohen, right, Collaboration and Public Participation Center of Expertise, Institute of Water Resources, and Patricia Fontanet, Water Resources Planner, answer questions during the Flood Preparedness and Emergency Management Resources Workshop for Tribes held Aug. 13 in Blue Lake, California. Goals of the workshop include identifying flooding-related challenges facing tribal nations, pairing those challenges with available government resources, and improving communication between tribes and government agencies.


Denise Shemenski, California Office of Emergency Services, speaks on the topic of flooding hazards and emergency communications. Shemenski stressed the need for working together and building agency-tribe relationships before there is are problems. “An emergency is not the time to be passing out business cards,” said Shemenski.

At the front of a conference room in the Resiliency Training and Innovation Center of the Blue Lake Rancheria, an Indian reservation in Humboldt County, four seated agency representatives faced the audience. As each took a turn to discuss how flooding and emergency communications affect tribal communities, panel member Denise Shemenski of the California Office of Emergency Services summed it up best, “An emergency is not the time to be passing out business cards.”

It’s a common theme often stated, but rarely executed: The need to work together and build agency-tribe relationships before there is an emergency.  

The Blue Lake workshop on August 13 was the fifth iteration of the Flood Preparedness and Emergency Management Resources Workshop for Tribes set up and run this summer by Sacramento District water resources planner Patricia Fontanet Rodriguez and Dr. Seth Cohen from the Institute of Water Resources’ Collaboration and Public Participation Center of Expertise.

The series of workshops were organized under the Silver Jackets program, which leads collaborative projects to improve safety and manage flood risk. The workshops provide USACE an opportunity to strengthen partnerships with tribal nations through knowledge exchange and inter-agency collaboration. Various informational panels and presentations were held throughout the event, and featured a mix of tribal representatives and government agencies discussing ways to enhance everything from risk communications and preparedness to hazard mitigation and disaster recovery.

“The workshop offers an opportunity to meet in an informal and comfortable environment to discuss regional water-related issues, as opposed to waiting until there’s an emergency and everyone is in a very stressful situation. It’s a chance to network and try to get out in front of problems,” said Fontanet Rodriguez.

“Getting out in front of problems is key,” stated Dr. Theresa Gregor of the Inter-Tribal Long-Term Recovery Foundation via teleconference. “Not only is it a matter of personal safety, it’s a matter of property and money. Every dollar spent on hazard mitigation, provides the nation approximately six dollars in future benefits,” she said.

Dean Baker of the Yurok Tribe and Anita Huff of the Blue Lake Tribe focused the conversation on interpersonal communication and understanding tribal culture, providing insights on how government agencies could better understand and interact with members of tribes.

“It’s very important to try to understand each other and to learn how tribal culture affects our interaction,” said Baker. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of mistrust between Native Americans and federal agencies. But it’s good to see so many federal agencies reaching out like this to exchange and enhance knowledge.”

Mark Gilfillan, Sacramento District’s Tribal Liaison was in attendance as well, and agreed with Baker’s perspective, stating that he feels the tribal water resources workshops are allowing for a new era of working together.

“These workshops are unique in that we get to cross-train with other agencies and the tribes,” said Gilfillan. “There is no cookie-cutter approach to finding solutions – we have to be flexible in our approach – but it’s refreshing for tribes to acknowledge a new horizon of working together with federal agencies.”