Protecting Water: From Acequia’s to Standing Rock

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Here in New Mexico, there is a long tradition of being caretakers and protectors of the water in the arid environment we call home. “El Agua es Vida/Water is Life” is a universal concept that echoes the fundamental importance of water to survival.  In acequia communities, we view water as a don divino, or divine gift, and as a common resource that sustains all life.  

Today, we are witnessing the rise of one of the biggest collective actions to protect water at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation at Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Hundreds of indigenous nations and their supporters are opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL), a project of Energy Transfer Partners, planned to have the capacity to transport at least 570,000 barrels of oil a day across four states from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The project is estimated to be more than half complete at a cost of $3.7 million. In addition to Standing Rock, there has also been strong opposition to the pipeline by a coalition of organizations in Iowa where dozens have been arrested for protesting the pipeline. Iowa farmers have sued to object to the use of eminent domain to make way for the pipeline through their property.

The construction on the pipeline started in May with permits from regulatory agencies in states along the route. However, the project is under litigation over permitting by the Army Corp of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over those portions of the pipe that cross bodies of water. For the Missouri River Crossing, the Corps determined that the pipeline would have “no significant impact” on the environment and therefore waived the requirement for a detailed Environmental Impact Statement. Furthermore, the Corp used an expedited permitting process, National Permit Process No. 12, rather than the more rigorous 404 permit. Another complication was that the Corps issues a verification to bore underneath Lake Oahe before granting the easement to cross the lake.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corp of Engineers in federal court over a lack of compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and adequate consultation with the tribe in the granting of the permit. In September, a federal judge denied the tribe’s request for an injunction and the tribe immediately appealed. At the same time, the Army halted further work on that section of the pipeline to review past permitting decisions. Although construction is proceeding in other stretches of the pipeline, the crossing of the Missouri River is on hold pending the ongoing litigation with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A hearing is pending on the appeal for November but the litigation could go on over a year.

Besides crossing the Missouri River, the pipeline has another 209 river crossings. Opponents to the pipeline have raised concerns about the potential for leaks in the pipeline, which could contaminate communities, farms, rivers, and aquifers for millions of people. Communities have cause to be concerned about pipeline leaks. As recently as September 2016, a pipeline leak spilled 360,000 gallons of gas in Shelby County, Alabama. In 2011, a pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River in Montana leaked spilling 63,000 of crude oil leaving pollution along an 85 mile stretch of the river. A more recent spill in the same area contaminated the water supply for the community of Glendive, Montana. In the case of the Yellowstone River, Exxon Mobile paid a settlement of $12 million for cleanup activities but local communities are left to wonder if their river and drinking water are safe.

In the case of the Standing Rock, if the pipeline were to fail for even one hour, the flow of the pipeline could potentially result in a spill of an estimated 822,498 gallons. Downstream communities on in the Standing Rock Sioux nation would be immediately affected but millions of communities downstream who rely on the Missouri would also be affected by the contamination if a leak would occur.

The pipeline has galvanized a movement that has unified indigenous nations and allies to protect water. Many local organizations, concerned citizens, and tribal councils including the All Indian Pueblo Council and Eight Northern Indian Pueblo Council, have organized around the issue, either through supply donations, political actions, or physical participation in the camps. In early September dozens of organizations, including Tewa Women United, Honor Our Pueblo Existence, Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center, and SWOP signed a letter to the president and NM’s congressional delegation supporting Standing Rock’s lawsuit and resistance. In less than one month over 100 tribes across the nation have gathered in North Dakota at the encampment. From New Mexico, various delegations of supporters, advocates, and ceremonial dancers have traveled to North Dakota to stand in solidarity and support with ceremony, prayers, supplies, and other volunteer services.

Recently, Virginia Necochea and Jorge Garcia, founders of the Center for Social Sustainability Systems (CESSOS) received a call to action for danzantes (ceremonial dancers) to pilgrimage and pray in solidarity with Standing Rock to protect nuestra agua divina. In an interview with Jorge and Virginia, they testified why Standing Rock is an important movement and a call for our acequieros here in New Mexico who have a powerful spiritual and physical connection to water to rally against developments and threats to water in our own communities.

Virginia reflected on her experience there, “Cuando llegamos, you could see all the people, corrals, cars, and tipis. They had ceremony every day; sweat lodges every evening, the drumming and praying never stopped! We did a procession to where the fire was at and it was one of the most powerful danzas I have ever been in. Witnessing all these different tribes and nations getting together for this cause made clear to me why our fight for water back home [here in NM] is also so important!”

Emphasizing this, Jorge questions “What is the best way to help Standing Rock? We must ignite a fire where all water protectors can gather and better understand the water issues in New Mexico. Standing Rock means bringing down the borders that exist and protecting our own area. Now more than ever, there is a growing need to unify the indigenous nations and land-based people of this nation around water.”

Virgina associates the Standing Rock struggle with the opposition to the Santolina development west of Albuquerque. “The village of Atrisco is questioning any development of Santolina because it is going to impact our acequias and wells with an overdependence of pumping water from the aquifer. After all of the research, facts, and resistance Santolina is being built despite the fact that our water is going to be affected.” Acequias are vulnerable to the impacts of overpumping of aquifers and the transfer of water rights out of agriculture which result in a loss of water rights to their respective communities. Acequias are also sensitive to contamination that affects water quality.

For this reason, NMAA has been involved with Honor Our Pueblo Existence and Tewa Women United, along with other organizations, to raise concerns about pollution originating from Los Alamos National Laboratories in recent years. At last year’s Congreso de las Acequias, Marian Naranjo from HOPE explained that, because of concerns raised by the community, LANL now has one of the most stringent stormwater discharge permits in the nation which is intended to reduce contamination from the labs into the Rio Grande.

The vision of the NM Acequia Association is to see our acequias flowing with clean water, people working together to grow food, and communities celebrating cultural and spiritual traditions that are connected to land and water. The worldview that treats land and water as commodities threatens the continued life of our communities. NMAA shares concerns about water quality and the preservation of cultural and traditional uses of water. In keeping with our mission, the NMAA supports access to clean water for generations to come for all people.