US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District

Tribes Step Forward to Sponsor Work

District Technical Writer / Editor
Published Feb. 1, 2011
The Rio Grande as it flows through the Española Valley project area.

The Rio Grande as it flows through the Española Valley project area.

When the sponsor for the Española Basin project pulled its support for this flood risk management study in 1996, people assumed that the project was finished. But in 2004, an alliance of three Pueblos, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso, devised a new, holistic vision for the project that made ecosystem restoration the centerpiece of river and flood management efforts.

Because tribal lands encompass almost the entire length of the riparian zone in the Española Basin, the changes to the project scope would have far-reaching effects on this unregulated section of the Rio Grande. This marks the first time a single project has been sponsored by multiple tribes working together.

Current project lead, Civil Project Manager Alicia Austin Johnson, says that the tribes brought a “more ‘macro’ view of the river” to project planning. “They recognized that what is going on upstream and downstream of the pueblos affects the river as it runs through their land, so all three pueblos became involved.”

Tribal elders recollected that during their youth, the floodplain on either side of the river had consisted of wetlands with rich riparian communities where frogs and turtles were common sights. Since then, projects on the river upstream and downstream of tribal lands had initiated stream incision and headcutting which threatened to leave the floodplain permanently abandoned throughout the northern basin, completely devastating the riparian ecosystem. Channelization is a particular problem at Ohkay Owinge and Santa Clara. At San Ildefonso, managing flood risk and sediment accumulation in the active channel are pressing issues.

Embracing a multi-generation framework, the tribes are seeking to restore the river as their elders remember it for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. In the process, their plans will enrich the floodway for endangered and non-endangered species, improve recreational opportunities and restore the floodplain’s natural function of absorbing and regulating floodwaters.

The Corps is currently completing a feasibility study for the project that is anticipated to be complete in 2014.

“What is so interesting about working with the Pueblos,” Austin Johnson says, “is that their leaders are motivated by wanting to improve tribal lands for future generations rather than by politics or looking good to their electorate. As a result, they are very interested in creating long-term, personal relationships with the Corps to improve the collaboration and results we will create together.

“And,” she adds, “they are very concerned about endangered species, and not just those in the wild. They point to their own ‘silvery minnows,’ their elders, those thinning ranks of precious individuals whose lives were lived intertwined with the landscape. It is those increasingly endangered memories of ‘how it used to be’ that so greatly inform the tribes’ sense of how they want the landscape to be restored for the benefit of future generations.”