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N.M. tribe works to restore sacred spring

ZIA PUEBLO, N.M. – After years of drought and livestock grazing, a spring sacred to an American Indian tribe in north-central New Mexico has dried up, and now the concern is that erosion, climate change and the region’s growing demand for water will keep the spring from recovering.

So Zia Pueblo, a restoration ecologist and a team of volunteers are doing some heavy lifting to get the spring flowing again.

They began working May 23 under cloudy skies and spitting rain – something the area hasn’t seen much of in a long time.

“Mother Nature and the spirit world are showering us with rain,” tribal administrator Peter Pino told the group as they gathered in a circle for a prayer. “I personally believe that when people are coming together for a good cause that these kinds of things happen. This is good weather.”

Pino, a few of his family members and about two dozen volunteers spent the day building several rock dams above the spring to catch runoff and sediment from the sandstone bluffs and clay hills above. Native grass seeds were then raked in around the rocks.

The structures are designed to spur the growth of vegetation and recharge the soil with moisture instead of allowing it to run off and create deep ruts in the earth.

Steve Vrooman, an ecologist from Santa Fe who directed the volunteers, said the spring could return in a few years depending on the amount of rainfall the area receives.

What’s happening on the land south of the pueblo is also happening in other parts of the world as rivers run dry and groundwater supplies begin to dwindle. Alan Hamilton, conservation director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said people – regardless of their cultural differences – need to work together to find solutions.

“I really think we’re at a place, a crossroads, a threshold where we have to start living differently and more responsibly,” said Hamilton, who helped organize the restoration project at Zia. “We have to figure out a way of being more attentive to things and to be able to respond to things before the trauma becomes insurmountable.”

The trauma in this case was the drying of the spring, where generations of Zia tribal members would make pilgrimages each year during the summer solstice to draw water. The water from this spring and others would then be taken back to the pueblo, which sits at the foot of the Jemez Mountains.

“That water is used as a seed that they plant so that we can have days like today,” Pino said as the rain continued to fall.

“Everything that we do within our lives in the pueblo has to do with realizing that we don’t have much water,” he said, pointing to traditions such as drawing water from the springs and celebrating feast days.

While different communities are responding to pressures on natural resources in different ways, Pino said society as a whole needs to realize that it cannot continue to exploit what nature has provided if it wants to ensure a good quality of life for future generations.

“We should accept the fact that we are part of Mother Earth and that we don’t own it,” he said. “It’s really ownership that is a foreign concept to tribes. ... In the past, everything was shared by the people, the animals, the birds, the insects, the plants, all of that.”

The volunteers seemed to forget about the rain and mud as they worked until Pino pointed out one of the rock dams was already doing its job. A small pool of water was forming behind the rocks.

“If you try to assist nature, you can make things happen.”

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