Floyd Pecos, Lt. Gov. Pete Trujillo and council member Joseph Henry Suina stood by the edge of the almost-overflowing Rio Grande on a May morning. The river flows through the heart of Cochiti Pueblo land and several miles west of Interstate 25.
In the 1950s, this was their playground as boys. They would swim in the river, hunt birds and scoop up Rio Grande silvery minnows by the bucketful. “We used to fry them up. They were really good,” Pecos recalled, as the river water lapped almost to his shoes.
The men are old enough to remember picking fruit all summer and fall apples, apricots, plums, cherries from pueblo family orchards along the river. “Every family had a plot of land by the river,” said Suina. “Life was out there on the farm.”
“Everyone helped during harvest,” Pecos said. “Everyone shared food. That’s what kept the community together.”
It all changed in a generation.
First the federal government came in and bulldozed the farms, orchards and small homes by the river in the late 1950s. In those days, most of the pueblo people living on the almost 54,000-acre reservation had two homes – one in the pueblo and one by the river. The men can’t remember why the lands were bulldozed, maybe to make the farms larger.
“That was a big mistake,” said Suina, a retired University of New Mexico education professor and former U.S. Marine. “Everyone still remembers where (everyone else’s farm) was at the time when it happened.”
Then came the dam.
Pecos looked to the northern horizon and the dark outline of the five-mile long dam holding back billions of gallons of water in the Cochiti Reservoir.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building it in the mid-1960s and finished it in 1975. At capacity, the reservoir can hold more than half a million acre-feet of water collected from an 11,695-square-mile drainage area and sources like the Santa Fe River. The dam looms 251 feet above the river bed. It was built to control flooding and sediment, an important tool for managing Rio Grande flows to miles of ditches and hundreds of farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. Congress later added recreation to the reservoir’s purpose.
“The pueblo didn’t know (upfront) it was also for recreation,” Suina said.
Dust and noise from the dam’s construction disturbed the usual quiet around the pueblo for a dozen years. “It really disrupted the peace and quiet of the pueblo,” Suina said.
The waters covered a canyon. The sides of the spillway-outlet were anchored to a rock outcropping, destroying it.
“That was one of our sacred sites, not just to Cochiti, but to other pueblos,” Suina said. “They blamed Cochiti when it was destroyed. Even today some still blame us.”
River banks once lined with cottonwoods now have a forest of non-native Russian olives. “The dam created the Russian olive problem,” Pecos said. “Seasonal floods on the river used to clean everything out.”
The men also say the little silvery minnow wasn’t endangered until the dam interrupted the natural ebb and flow of the Rio Grande.
Many bird species that once flocked to the small farms and orchards stopped coming.
Pecos said the grading of the farms and the dam construction along with other factors changed the pueblo’s relationship to the land. The arrival of electricity and a tourism industry at about the same time further enticed Cochiti Pueblo people into a new way of life, he said.
The last blow to farming occurred after the dam was finished. Water seeped along its sides constantly and flooded pueblo farmlands downstream. “You could cup your hand along the side and it would fill with water,” Suina said.
The farmers couldn’t plant when the fields were flooded with three to four feet of water. When water did dry off, salts rose to the top, killing vegetation and poisoning the fields, Trujillo said.
Suina said some of the pueblo elders traveled to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the seepage.
The pueblo eventually sued the federal government over the dam seepage. The federal government settled with the tribe. In 1994, the tribe used the settlement funds to contract out and build a subsurface drainage system to take the seepage away from the fields.
But the damage was done. For almost a quarter of a century, there was no farming. “We had a whole generation that went without farming,” Suina said. “The older men say the young ones don’t know how to work hard and work with their hands.”
The cultural shift was dramatic.
“It changed the whole relationship not only between people and the land but the (helping) relationship of people to each other. We became more private,” said Suina. “We still get together for ceremonies, but it’s different.”
The three men remembered that when the Cochiti people were working farms, hunting, fishing and harvesting, most of them were slim. As they shifted to making crafts, eating chips, drinking sodas, watching television and enjoying the other trappings of a modern life, their physical fitness declined.
Meanwhile, the Cochiti Reservoir filled up and became a new destination for anglers, swimmers, boaters and parties. Visitors traipsed across Cochiti Pueblo land without permission, Pecos said. Every weekend, they left behind trash and beer cans scattered near the reservoir and along the river.
The pueblo and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked to repair relations in the last several years. The corps began consulting the pueblo about decisions with the reservoir.
In 2008, Cochiti Pueblo signed a historic agreement with the corps to participate in overall management of the Cochiti Lake area.
The pueblo tried with varying success to grow alfalfa once the seepage was drained from fields, Pecos said.
Still, the governor said he’s encouraged by recent interest in farming from about a dozen of the pueblo’s young men. “They’re coming to the council asking for plots of land, they want to grow crops,” he said. “We encourage them.”
“It’s good,” Pecos said, watching the river roll by where he used to play as a boy.
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