‘Not an object to be bartered,’ the Rio Grande is lifeblood for the land
As New Mexico’s largest river dries, pueblos work to preserve it — and to establish their rights
Phoebe Suina, a hydrologist and board member of the Interstate Stream Commission, stands in front of the federally built reservoir on Cochiti Pueblo. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
SILE, N.M. — The river is something Phoebe Suina carries with her always.
“I look at my hand, and you have all of these veins. They’re all blue, just like a river,” Suina (Cochiti Pueblo) said. “As blood flows through us, so do the rivers and streams across the land from the mountains.”
The river is a lifeblood for the land, she said, for spiritual practices both past and future.
Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.
Read more: Watching the oxbow dry
Sitting in her garden outside of Sile, N.M., a monsoon’s deep gray clouds ballooning across the horizon, Suina described her relationship with water as expansive.
Immersed in water policy and practices as a hydrologist, she’s one of the nine board members on the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. She fuses her academic understanding with knowledge shaped by Cochiti religious practices in growing crops and keeping balance between human and nature.
It’s an understanding of borrowing water in a greater cycle, in a timescale of thousands of years. We use water and become part of the watershed, she said.
Quantifying the river — only seeing it in a stream of numbers — alienates the river, Suina warned, turning it into an object to divvy.
“It further disconnects you from water. It further objectifies it. It’s not an object to be bartered and traded,” she said. “We cannot take the river for granted. We have to do what we can in the time that we have to steward the river.”
The dam and the damage
Growing up in the shadow of Cochiti Dam shaped Suina’s path.
Congress authorized the construction of the Cochiti and Galisteo Dams in 1960 to control sediment in the river and flooding in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Four years later, Congress gave the go-ahead for a recreation pool at Cochiti, supplied by San Juan-Chama Project flows, which come through the Colorado River.
The project was approved over the objections of Cochiti Pueblo, which wound up selling 4,000 acres of farmland to the federal government. The other option was for the government to forcibly take the land through a condemnation proceeding, according to a report prepared by the Cochiti Pueblo and submitted to Congress.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam in 1975. It cost $94 million.
Starting in 1976 and continuing in the years afterward, the water held behind the dam raised groundwater in the region directly around it.
This “seepage” from the dam flooded Cochiti farms and grazing land in the bosque, threatening almost all of the Pueblo’s existing farmlands. The Corps built several underground drainage systems, attempting to stem the expanding pools downstream of the dam. While some systems temporarily alleviated portions of farmlands from flooding, the seepage expanded, according to Cochiti reports.
After years of failed negotiations, the Pueblo sued the federal government in 1980.
In a 1988 Senate hearing before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, Cochiti Gov. John Bowannie said the flooding was an existential threat.
“I am afraid we face the literal and total destruction of our useful land base, and with it, everything that makes us Cochitis,” he said.
What we are talking about here is the possible destruction of our nation, a nation which has endured for thousands of years. – Former Cochiti Gov. John Bowannie in 1988
What we are talking about here is the possible destruction of our nation, a nation which has endured for thousands of years.
– Former Cochiti Gov. John Bowannie in 1988
Bowannie said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withheld information from the Pueblo about the consequences of building the dam.
“We were shocked to learn recently that the Corps of Engineers knew full well that the earth dam they planned to construct, to build, would have significant seepage from it, and for whatever reason, that they had concealed this information from us,” he told the committee.
In addition to losing 4,000 acres of sacred farmland to the dam and reservoir, Bowannie and former Cochiti Gov. Fred Cordero spoke of the broken promise from the government not to destroy sacred sites during construction. They were marked and pointed out beforehand.
In 1992, Congress passed a bill allowing for a $12 million settlement to pay for seepage damages from the dam on Cochiti farmlands and use of the funding to construct and operate an underground drainage system to reduce the flooding, which was completed in 1994 — nearly 20 years after the start of seepage issues.
One of the ideas for settlement included giving the Pueblo non-voting status on the Rio Grande Compact Commission. That never came to fruition.
Suina said learning about the injustice of the dam was a factor in driving her to seek an engineering degree and work with the Pueblo — addressing post-fire flooding there after the Las Conchas Fire raged in 2011. This year, after the most devastating wildfires in New Mexico history ripped across the state, she again worked to fight the flooding in some areas, even as the river cracked and dried in others.
The devastation of climate change, she said, will not be rolled back easily.
“Everybody wants a quick answer. Everybody wants a quick solution. And really, it is not going to be a quick answer or an easy solution,” she said. “To be honest, it is going to take years, take sacrifices and it’s going to be a lot of hard work.”
A seat at the table
SANDIA — Miles downstream, under the tall windows in an empty lobby of the Sandia Resort and Casino, Sandia Gov. Stuart Paisano said his Pueblo has adopted irrigation efficiencies and worked to replenish the cottonwood bosque.
Paisano describes the process in a low and measured voice, illustrating the bend of the river with his hand.
“I remember very vividly the numerous cottonwood trees that were everywhere within our stretch of the river,” he said. “And unfortunately, that no longer exists because they’re starting to die off.”
The lagoons and ponds between the riverbank and the Albuquerque main canal were his refuge in youth.
“We used to always love to go fishing. They were full of sunfish, bass and the infamous carp,” he said. “All I have are memories of what it used to be, because the pools are all filled in now with silt and overgrowth.”
The Pueblo has adopted farmland changes like laser-leveling and scheduling irrigation on 24-hour cycles every week to reduce water losses. Still, the project to reinvigorate the cottonwood stands that historically occupied the river has been so far unsuccessful.
“Because the poles don’t have the water table that used to be there in order to grow the root base to try to survive, we would have to hand-water them basically,” Paisano said. “We’re trying to repair the health of the bosque as best we can, so that hopefully we can try to regrow cottonwoods.”
Sandia’s water plan is not formally documented. Instead it’s held through traditions, he said. But even those have changed.
What we did 100 years ago, we can no longer do. We can no longer drink the water, for example, for traditional cultural purposes, without having to boil it.
– Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano
Sandia was invited alongside others to develop the state’s 50-year water plan, and pueblos’ participation has increased in local, state and federal levels.
“The pueblos in New Mexico, including Sandia, are finally able to have a seat at the table to voice our concerns as to how our reach of the river has been impacted, and how the water that we used to have no longer exists,” he said. “Our voices are starting to be heard.”
In 1928, the U.S. passed a law that recognized the six pueblos’ “prior and paramount” rights to water on 8,346 acres — meaning the water is given to them before all other irrigators. Those rights were expanded to include reclaimed lands, totalling about 20,000 acres of land across the six pueblos.
A court has never determined the order of the water rights held in the Middle Rio Grande. But Secretary of the Interior Department Deb Haaland approved a federal assessment team to start the yearslong effort to quantify the six pueblos’ water rights on the Rio Grande in April.
The court process is often time-consuming. Some of the longest-running lawsuits in New Mexico have been about water allocation, with water-ownership cases like the 1966 Aamodt case between thousands of landowners, county, local and tribal governments in the Pojoaque Basin stretching more than five decades.
Just last year in May, the six Middle Rio Grande pueblos — Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta — asked for a seat at the table of the river’s governing board, made up of representatives from Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
“In the past, the Bureau of Indian Affairs represented pueblos at commission meetings,” Isleta Gov. Vernon Abeita told commissioners. “It is now time the coalition interacts with the commission directly, and for the commission to engage the coalition pueblos, so that our voices can be heard.”
Rio Grande compact commissioners declined to comment on their positions regarding the pueblos’ request, adding that they plan to address it during 2023’s annual meeting.
Find the next article, Rescuing silvery minnows like ‘slapping a Band-Aid on a severed limb’ at SourceNM.com on Wednesday.
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