WASHINGTON - Zuni Heaven is a last resting place, a ceremonial area and a
cultural resource. But it is not a homeland, and that distinction is what
allowed the Zuni Tribe to reach difficult compromises with federal and
state authorities over water rights to the Little Colorado River.
Tribal leaders and negotiators, as well as senators from Arizona and New
Mexico and BIA head Dave Anderson, joined Interior Secretary Gale Norton as
she formally signed off on a complicated agreement that actually became law
last year, in June 2003. This year's signing on July 8 authorizes a host of
practical considerations that must be met in fulfillment of the law by Dec.
31, 2006. The tribe's ultimate goal is to restore at least enough water for
wetlands at Zuni Heaven. The site is sacred, as is water in Zuni culture.
Another goal of the Zuni Indian Tribe Water Rights Settlement Agreement was
to preserve the status quo among current water users on the Little Colorado
River, so as to get away from litigation. Water withdrawals from the Little
Colorado dried up Zuni Heaven in the 20th century. Twenty years ago the
tribe began to assert rights to the river in eastern Arizona, hoping to
restore stream flows at Zuni Heaven in Arizona, about an hour's drive from
the main Zuni homelands in New Mexico.
Negotiations began 10 years ago that culminated in the current agreement.
If parties to the agreement fail to enact their commitments by the end of
2006, the parties could return to the courthouse. Among the commitments by
several of the many parties involved are capital appropriations,
acquisition of water rights, and the drafting and execution of
intergovernmental agreements on mainly environmental issues.
With dozens of interests involved across two states, a tribe, Arizona
cities and towns, water districts and a power company, the Zuni had to
compromise on several points. Perhaps the most difficult compromise for the
tribe was on water quality. In return for waiving their right to seek
damages for water quality problems that could arise, the tribe bargained
for installation of a system of monitoring wells that will test waters
headed for Zuni Heaven. After 30 years, the tribe will be able to assert
damage claims over water quality if needed. In the meantime, all federal
Environmental Protection Agency regulations and obligations remain in
"If the water gets dirty and we find it's impacting us, we still have
recourse," said Edward Wemytewa, a Zuni councilman.
He hastened to add that the short-term waiver of authority over water
rights sets no precedent for other tribes, but reflects the unique
characteristics of Zuni Heaven. The tribe knows it is relatively pristine
land, and even in a worst-case scenario (considered unlikely given the
federal environmental protections still in place) contaminated water would
not contaminate the permanent Zuni homelands.
The settlement resolves all Zuni claims in the ongoing general stream
adjudication of the Little Colorado River in Arizona, according to an
Interior Department handout and Wilfred Eriacho, the lead Zuni negotiator
on water who spoke at the signing. He termed Zuni Heaven the tribe's "most
important" lands, adding that they will be restored "as close to wetland
conditions as were described in oral tradition" and all for "strictly
religious purposes." The compromises that made the law and its enacting
agreements possible were painful, he said, but "so much better than a
lengthy and difficult litigation process."
The signing date of July 8, for a law passed a year ago and with much still
to be done before it becomes enforceable, was bound to raise eyebrows in
Indian country. On July 7, President George W. Bush signed the Western
Shoshone Distribution Bill - a signature bound to put him in bad standing
with a number of American Indians and their allies, in a presidential
election year no less. By contrast, a day later, the Zuni were pleased
indeed with the law Bush signed over a year ago. But no one on the White
House staff would comment on whether the proximity of dates in the Western
Shoshone and Zuni signings was intentional. Jennifer Farley, deputy
associate director in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs,
attended the July 8 signing but referred all questions to the White House
media office. Maria Tamburri there referred the question on timing to the
For her part, Norton said her signing represented 10 years of hard work by
many parties. "There is a joyousness about finally getting an issue