Cochiti Dam is situated on Cochiti Pueblo, an Indigenous reservation located alongside the Rio Grande River in Northern New Mexico . Cochiti Dam was designed, constructed, and governed by the Albuquerque District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beginning in 1965 and ending in 1973 . The discussions around implementing this dam somewhere along the Rio Grande arose in the 1930s due to the excessive flooding occurring in Northern New Mexico, specifically concerning and impacting Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the two most economically productive cities in New Mexico . As the Army Corps of Engineers debated the dam’s placement, Santa Fe and Albuquerque were immediately ruled out, along with the bordering communities near these cities due to the environmental, health, and physical impact the dam would bring to the land and people in close proximity. With these communities ruled out, the Army Corps of Engineers turned to Indigenous community reservations residing between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Prior to the 1960s, throughout many of these discussions, the people of Cochiti consistently stood in strong opposition of the proposed Cochiti Dam on their land. Despite this, with scarce warning, consulting, and contact, the Army Corps of Engineers quickly deemed Cochiti Pueblo as the "best" location for the placement of this Dam.
During the time period of the Civil Rights Movement (beginning in the late 1940s and ending in the late 1960s), Cochiti began to see and experience the impacts affirmative action had on themselves and surrounding indigenous communities. Affirmative action was implemented through the development of new federal programs that aimed to address the opportunities and future of indigenous communities in a drastically different way than had ever been done before . The Civil Rights Movement created an illusion that Indigenous people were no longer neglected and banned from "The American Dream," and were then given several initiatives to become a part of this "dream." Indigenous communities were offered a path towards assimilating into the westernized lifestyle that told promises of economic opportunities and an overall better life. However, during this time period it is important to consider that assimilating into western culture also inherently meant embarking on a path away from the traditional indigenous lifestyle. The Federal Government framed two options for indigenous communities: stay on the reservation and partake in a place and culture with limited opportunities, or allow western developments on reservations in order to achieve the American Dream, that would ultimately lead to a better life. Many indigenous people saw and believed these new opportunities and succumbed to the pressures of westernization. This resulted in the fact that by the 1960s, a substantial portion of Cochiti people were intrigued by the implementation of this Dam .
In addition to promising an influx of employment and economic opportunities to Cochiti, The Army Corps of Engineers ensured the people of Cochiti that this Dam would provide them with increased recreational and fishing opportunities that would only add to their land value, further vowing that none of their ancestral and sacred sites would be destroyed in the process. Despite these promises, the real intentions of the Army Corps of Engineers remained untold to the members of Cochiti. The Army Corps of Engineers viewed Cochiti Pueblo as nothing but an underdeveloped and vulnerable tract of land that made a perfect target for the worst kind of economic and environmental exploitation. Regis Pecos, a member of Cochiti pueblo, described that her land became "a playground for the affluent" .
Considering that the people of Cochiti had scarce experience with a development proposal of this magnitude, understanding that this plan was a part of a larger scheme working to solely benefit external stakeholders, was a fact blindsided to the majority of Cochiti people. Throughout the community of Cochiti, Pecos described the way these development proposals (by external forces) began to pit Cochiti people against one another. Pecos stated, "There was an incredible set of psychological dynamics at play that began to play members and leaders against one another. It became a classic example of external interests using those internally to break down resistance. This form of exploitation came at great cost culturally, socially, politically, and economically to a small underdeveloped tribal community. Without a clearly articulated vision, the proposed development of this Dam tore apart our once tightly knit village. It caused a great deal of divisiveness that no economic development benefit could ever make up for" .
Despite the fact that the people of Cochiti had differing opinions on the implementation of this Dam, Cochiti ultimately stood no chance against the Army Corps of Engineers’ extreme political and financial power.
The implementation of Cochiti Dam, followed by Cochiti Lake and Cochiti Lake Town began in 1965. For eight years, this construction burdened the people of Cochiti by giving them no other choice but to fall asleep and wake up to the sounds and sight of their homeland and sacred sites under destruction. In 1973, the Dam, lake, and town became officially established on the reservation of Cochiti Pueblo. This dam stretched 5.5 miles long, standing (at the time) as the fifth largest Dam in the United States and the eleventh largest in the world. Furthermore, Cochiti Lake and Cochiti Lake Town took over one-half of previously Cochiti owned land, along with bringing a proposed influx of 40,000 non-native residents moving into this town .
Cochiti Dam is an environmental injustice due to the fact that the surrounding community of Cochiti Pueblo is solely comprised of indigenous people, people of color, and low-income people of color. According to the United States Census Bureau, Cochiti Pueblo's median household income is $44,375 whereas the median American household income is $63,179. In addition, the Census Bureau reported that 33.5% people in Cochiti are without health insurance compared to 10.5% of American citizens without health insurance. Furthermore, seeing that Cochiti Pueblo is a sovereign government, indigenous communities are consistently burdened with the responsibility for the many injustices inflicted on indigenous communities by external stakeholders. Although the state government, federal government, or external stakeholder causing the injustice should be held responsible, these powerful stakeholders typically never are, placing this burden onto the tribal government. In view of this, Cochiti has little to no access in receiving non-native representation and is left with mere established representation that exists within the pueblo. In 2016, the BTI Consulting Group revealed that the median rate for an efficient lawyer in America is held between $1,600 to $2,000 per hour, and that this cost is projected to continually increase. For a pueblo that has an average annual revenue of $500,000, meeting this price is not only unlikely, but impossible. Cochiti Pueblo’s racial, political, and class standing bars the community from obtaining necessary resources and representation, making Cochiti Pueblo an environmental injustice site.
In addition, the destruction that this dam, lake, and town has brought to Cochiti Pueblo has been immeasurable. The Army Corps of Engineers broke every vow they promised to the people of Cochiti, starting with the immediate destruction of the pueblo's ancestral, sacred sites and broader landscape. Pecos explained, "To see those places where we had played, the places that had nurtured us through all of our life experiences to that point, destroyed was traumatic... what used to be a paradise was now totally abandoned. The remaining agricultural lands were lost to us forever. No more lands of the Pueblo would ever be under cultivation. Comparatively speaking, we lost our way of life literally overnight. A way of life our people had known since time immemorial was now gone" . The loss of Cochiti's sacred sites and landscape are not only physical losses but emotional ones, as the destruction of these features are directly tied to the erasure of Cochiti's history, culture, spirituality, and lifestyle. Furthermore, Cochiti Dam had extreme seepage and flooding issues that would often trigger severe mudslides. The excess of water and mud escaped from the Dam infiltrated the previous, naturally dry farmland of Cochiti, ruining the majority of their agricultural land. Interpretations based on historical aerial maps in the 1930s reveal that pre-dam, 100% of agricultural lands were in practice and under cultivation . Gene Ka-hee, traditional leader and Manager of the Natural Resources Department in Cochiti reveals how standing pools of water continue to be left from the seepage of the dam, resulting in the 550 of the 800 acres of previously tribal irrigated farmland being flooded to the point that made farming an impossible task.
The Army Corps of Engineers additionally broke their pledge that Cochiti would receive economic and employment benefits from Cochiti Dam. Little to no financial opportunities were brought to the people of Cochiti. Adding to this, the influx of tourists brought by Cochiti Dam was not only unable to benefit the people of Cochiti but worked as another aspect that caused further damage. Cochiti Lake Town, a place advertised as having all the amenities for a "seven-day weekend," threatened the entire existence of Cochiti Pueblo. Living alongside predominately white, wealthier outsiders was a main factor in the post-dam physical, historical, and cultural erasure of Cochiti; the people of Cochiti became the minority on their own lands .
Despite these extremely negative injustices, throughout every stage of the Dam, Cochiti Pueblo showcased unwavering mobilization and determination in achieving justice for their community. In 1976, once the people of Cochiti saw the first signs of flooding, seepage, and mudslides coming from the Dam, the pueblo immediately filed a damaged farmland report. However, for over twelve years, the Army Corps of Engineers ignored this report, stating that all earth fill dams "leak" and that seepage can be expected to continue due to the variable soils beneath the Dam. After twelve years of consistent pressure, pleas, and justice efforts from Cochiti and supporting grassroot efforts, the Army Corps of Engineers finally admitted in 1988 that the Cochiti Dam caused negative impacts onto the entire community of Cochiti Pueblo . Although this took twelve years of persistent work, this acknowledgement was the first major step in the right direction towards bringing justice to Cochiti Pueblo.
Many positive policies were implemented soon after the Army Corps of Engineers publicly confessed to the destruction Cochiti Dam has brought onto the people of Cochiti. Cochiti was able to get legislation passed and approved to reduce the scope of Cochiti Lake Town's master plan from 40,000 non-native residents to only 600 non-native residents . Following this, in 2001 the Army Corps of Engineers took initiative to amend their relationship with the people of Cochiti by formally apologizing to all of Cochiti Pueblo for all of the lies and wrongdoings they committed on their land. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers promised to consult with the pueblo on every decision regarding the dam, lake, and town, moving forward . Furthermore, in February 2010, Cochiti Pueblo and the Army Corps of Engineers signed a cooperative agreement to investigate impacts that Cochiti Dam had on the pueblo, with the Army Corps of Engineers being at the forefront for providing the majority of funding and research efforts .
The Cochiti Dam represents the long and complex relationship between national interest and marginalized communities. Although the Cochiti Dam continues to stand and represent much of what is lost, the successful lawsuits symbolize everything that is to come. With the mutual respect both Cochiti Pueblo and the Army Corps of Engineers has finally gained for one another, the people of Cochiti continue to adamantly work towards receiving the most amount of justice possible for their community .