New Mexico agencies to help protect sacred lake

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) November 2010

Gov. Bill Richardson last week called on a handful of state agencies to help expand protections for a small lake near the New Mexico-Arizona border that is held sacred by American Indian tribes throughout the region.

Richardson signed an executive order that spells out the additional protections that tribal officials and traditional leaders at Zuni Pueblo had long been seeking. The order was signed during a ceremony at the pueblo that was attended by hundreds of people. “This day will be remembered in Zuni for a long time to come, not just for what is being signed by our friend Governor Bill Richardson today, but for all the battles that have been fought by a collection of individuals, tribal leaders, organizations and friends of our Mother, Zuni Salt Lake,” said Zuni Pueblo Gov. Norman Cooeyate.

For decades, the lake, nestled in the high desert of western New Mexico, has been threatened by proposed coal mining as well as oil, natural gas and water development.

Richardson said he’s concerned that water withdrawals and other activities in the area could upset the lake’s delicate hydrological balance.

“During my time as governor and before, I have recognized that Native American sacred sites are an irreplaceable and valued part of New Mexico’s heritage and are deserving of respect and protection,” he said in prepared remarks.

The order, developed over several months by Zuni leaders and state officials, aims to build a partnership between state agencies and the tribe to safeguard the lake and surrounding cultural and archaeological sites.

The lake plays an important role in Zuni Pueblo’s belief system. Throughout the year, men from the pueblo make pilgrimages to the lake to seek spiritual guidance, to make offerings and to collect salt for domestic and ceremonial use.

The lake also holds significance for the Navajo, Hopi, White Mountain Apache Tribe and Acoma and Laguna pueblos.

Among its charges, the executive order directs the state engineer to designate a team that will work with the tribe to ensure the survival of Zuni Salt Lake through modeling and other studies aimed at better management of surface and groundwater.

The tribe has sought designation of the area as a critical well management area. State Engineer John D’Antonio said more hydrologic studies will have to be done to determine if that would be warranted.

The tribe will also be notified when water rights applications involving the Zuni River, the Carrizo Wash and the Gallup basin are filed with the state engineer. That way the tribe can file protests when necessary.

D’Antonio said the order makes clear the tribe’s desire to protect the lake.

The State Historic Preservation Division will also help the tribe in its efforts to have the lake and sanctuary added to the National Register of Historic Places.

For the last 40 years, the lake has been registered as a New Mexico cultural property. In 2004, it was identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most endangered historical sites in America.