Zuni Salt Lake
Sixty miles south of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico lies Salt Lake, home of the Zuni's Salt Mother deity. When water evaporates in the summer, it leaves a layer of salt on the lake bottom, which is harvested by pilgrims, including medicine men coming from Zuni and other neighboring tribes. The Salt River Project, an Arizona-based public utility, intended to build a massive coal stripmine just 11 miles northeast of the lake. After nearly 2 decades of opposition from the Zuni Tribe, environmentalists and concerned citizens, the SRP relinquished their permits in August 2003. Its a tremendous victory for all Indian tribes concerned with sacred sites issues, says Zuni Councilman Dan Simplicio.
Zuni Salt Lake is home to Salt Woman, called Ma'l Oyattsik'i by the Zunis. Sacred trails, like umbilical cords, tie the lake to the Zuni villages and to other sacred sites around the area. Zuni men follow these trails to gather the salt which embodies the flesh of the Salt Mother herself. Other pueblos, including the Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna use the salt for their ceremonies as their clan ancestors from Chaco Canyon did a thousand years ago. Apache and Navajo also claim use. A 185,000 acre area around the lake, known as "The Sanctuary" or A:shiwi A:wan Ma'k'yay'a dap an'ullapna Dek'ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne, contains burial grounds and shrines and by tradition is a neutral zone where members of various tribes may come together without conflict. In 1985, the U.S. government returned the lake itself, and 5,000 acres surrounding it, to Zuni control. Following this, however, the Salt River Project (SRP), the nation's third-largest public utility, was permitted to start working in the Sanctuary Area, launching studies for a proposed 18,000-acre Fence Lake Coal Mine on state, federal and privately-owned land. SRP wanted to stripmine 80 million tons of coal over the next 50 years, construct a 44-mile rail line to carry the coal to the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns, Arizona, and sell the electricity to 190,000 Phoenix residents.
SRP was first granted a state mining permit to operate in 1996. New Mexico mining regulations require that actual mining on state lease lands begin in the third year of a five-year permit. In 1999, when three years had lapsed, the state permit was extended without Zuni knowledge, and then the State renewed the original five-year permit on July 12, 2001.
Two agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior disagreed about the wisdom of issuing the federal "life of mine" permit. In 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a report by an independent hydrologist studying the potential damage to Salt Lake. This study concluded that pumping would reduce the water and salt in the lake and that the proposed monitoring plan would not be sufficient to detect reductions in the level of the aquifer. However, the Office of Surface Mining contested these conclusions and recommended that the mine be approved. In May 2002, the Bush administration and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton approved the permit in a climate of fear and rapid energy development. The permit was signed by deputy interior secretary Steven J. Griles, a former lobbyist for the coal industry.
SRP's mine plan called for pumping 85 gallons per minute (primarily to control dust), but SRP had underground water rights sufficient to extract up to 900 gallons per minute. Because of Zuni concerns about the Dakota Aquifer, the 2002 federal permit required that SRP take water from the Atarque Aquifer, which lies above the Dakota. But this was not endorsed by any new hydrological studies and the Zuni argued that depletion of the Atarque Aquifer would also damage the lake.
In 1999, three years after the state issued the first permit, federal officials determined the large Sanctuary Area around the lake to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (the lake itself was already on the Register). On May 29, 2003, Zuni Salt Lake and the Sanctuary Area were listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's new list of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in America. The majority of New Mexicos congressional delegation also weighed in on the matter, writing to federal regulators to express their concern about damage to the lake.
Edward Wemytewa, CouncilmanResources