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Cochiti Dam, New Mexico, USA


Cochiti Dam is situated on Cochiti Pueblo, an Indigenous reservation located alongside the Rio Grande River in Northern New Mexico [5]. 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 [5]. 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 [7]. 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 [7]. 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 [7]. 

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" [7]. 

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" [7]. 

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 [7].  

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" [7]. 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 [5]. 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 [7]. 

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 [5]. 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 [3]. 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 [7]. 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 [5]. 

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 [5]. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Cochiti Dam, New Mexico, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:New Mexico
Location of conflict:Cochiti Pueblo
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Tourism services

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Cochiti Dam is a 5.5 mile long dam that was constructed with 48,052,000 meters of material. Cochiti Lake sustains a recreational pool of approximately 62,000,000 meters, catching 1,200 meters of sediment per year [11]. In addition, this Dam manages natural water runoff from an 11,695 square miles drainage area, with a maximum outflow capacity of 14,790 feet [11]. Considering these features, The Army Corps of Engineers have been accused by Cochiti Pueblo that the implementation of this Dam has resulted in excessive seepage, flooding, and mudslide rates. Cochiti Pueblo expresses adamant concern on the pollution and harmful chemical rates that this dam has brought in, and the negative impacts it will have on organisms and the people of Cochiti. Furthermore, Cochiti examines the amount of money that deserves to be allocated on repairing the destruction that this Dam has caused the community. On the other hand, the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to find data proving that the seepage, flooding, and chemical rates caused by Cochiti Dam are comparably similar to the median rates of external data collected from other case studies [11]. However, in 1988, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged and admitted to portions of Cochiti Pueblo's findings and accusations, opening the door for Cochiti's future success of gaining support through policies and legislation.

Cochiti Pueblo was able to find ample data that backed Cochiti's case and demands in receiving acknowledgement and reparations from the Army Corporation of Engineers. Although Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBS) were not detected in water samples from the surface water quality characterizations, seven pesticide concentrations were found within Cochiti Lake compared to only two pesticide concentrations found in nearby Abiquiu Lake, the site chosen to work as a comparative tool and constant throughout the study. Dioxin and Furan, two highly toxic chemical compounds, were reported in detectable amounts throughout all the surface water quality tests of Cochiti Lake. In addition, it was found that Cochiti Lake's metal concentrations were significantly greater than the five metal concentrations grounded in Abiquiu Lake [11]. Furthermore, seeing that there can be no promise or guarantee that the rising water of Cochiti Lake would come to an end, Cochiti Pueblo and grassroot organizations work to calculate reparation costs that will be proposed to the Army Corps of Engineers to pay [11]. This study suggests that a combination of drainage systems could lower the water table to a significant enough amount that portions of Cochiti's farming culture could be revived for a price of between $4 to $5 million [15]. In addition to this proposed reparation cost, the Southwest Research and Development Company stated that the extreme crop damage and destruction on Cochiti lands deserves a necessary reparation cost at $2.6 million [15].

Project area:310.02158
Level of Investment for the conflictive project$94,400,000 to build the dam and amounts exceeding $35,000 in annual maintenance costs for the dam
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:528 people of the Indigenous Community of Cochiti Pueblo, additional pueblos and communities located alongside the Rio Grande
Start of the conflict:01/01/1965
Relevant government actors:Army Corps of Engineers, US Federal Government, State Government of New Mexico, Bureau of Land Affairs, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Bernalillo, and other affluent, predominantly non-Native American communities in close proximity
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Natural Resource Department of Cochiti Pueblo, Phoebe Suina and High Water Mark
Sierra Club
Conservation Alliance
Citizens of Cochiti Pueblo and other pueblan citizens in close proximity to the dam, Keres Children's Learning Center

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Native Americans: Cochiti people
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other Health impacts
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Other socio-economic impactsRisk of mudslides; reduction of main food staples due to the destruction of farming culture


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Fostering a culture of peace
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Proposal and development of alternatives:Due to the erasure of traditional Cochiti culture, language, and overall lifestyle that resulted from the implementation of Cochiti Dam, locals and grassroot activists took initiative in establishing the Keres Children's Learning Center, also known as KCLC in 2012. KCLC is a non-profit, Montessori primary school for indigenous children of Cochiti that centers the teaching of Keres, Cochiti's native language, and their heritage at the forefront of learning. The majority of teachers employed by KCLC are indigenous to Cochiti, ranging from elders to individuals in their twenties. These teachers encompass comprehensive cultural and academic lessons into one curriculum, giving students both the internal, traditional knowledge as well as preparing students with knowledge ranging from English to Math. KCLC works to restore Cochiti's lost culture as well as providing paid employment opportunities to the people of Cochiti [10]. Another alternative to the ongoing issue is the working relationship formed between the Army Corps of Engineers and Cochiti Pueblo
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the progressive legislations passed and the mobilization of Cochiti Pueblo that is still being seen today, environmental justice has still not been served to the people and community of Cochiti Pueblo. Although Cochiti was able to reduce the proposed 40,000 Cochiti Lake Town residents to 600, this non-native town still currently exists and can never be eliminated [7].
Furthermore, seeing that Cochiti Pueblo has a population of 528 people [3], Cochiti Lake Town has a larger population which maintains the fact that the people of Cochiti continue to be the minority of their own homelands. Consistent flooding and seepage issues from the dam continue to this day, resulting in the loss of the majority of Cochiti's farm land and farming culture [5]. Furthermore, the physical structure of the dam remains a constant, 5.5 mile long physical reminder of how the United States treats indigenous communities; Gene Ka-hee explains how this dam "... stretches an irreversible shadow across our land.” In addition to all these injustices that still have not been solved, the future of Cochiti Pueblo remains unknown and burdened onto the people of Cochiti. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Cochiti Dam with a constrained lifespan of no more than 100 years, leaving no plan for the removal or replacement of this dam in place for when the time comes. In approximately 50 years, the fate of not only Cochiti Dam but of Cochiti Pueblo will be at stake. Due to the Army Corps of Engineers’ neglect in creating a plan for the future of Cochiti Dam, this became Cochiti Pueblo's responsibility. In conclusion, environmental justice has still not been served to Cochiti Pueblo due to the fact that the people of Cochiti continue to be burdened by the injustices and held responsible for the implementation of possible solutions that resulted from external and unwanted forces [5].

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[11] Cochiti Baseline Study, A Data Compendium by the US Army Corporation of Engineers; A Comprehensive, Systematic data on the natural, water and other resources at and around Cochiti

Lake so that a more complete assessment could be made of the impacts of changes in lake operations on

the area's natural, water, and other resources.

[12] A Bill to Improve the Implementation of the Settlement Agreement Reached Between the Pueblo De Cochiti of New Mexico and the Corps of Engineers, and for Other Purposes; The purpose of S. 2643 is to amend Public Law No. 102-358, which authorized a Settlement Agreement between the Pueblo de Cochiti, the United States Department of the Interior, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The bill would authorize the transfer of responsibility for the Cochiti Dam drainage system to the Pueblo de Cochiti and release the United States from liability associated with that drainage system.

[13] Supplemental Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Report; Rio Grande and Tributaries Flood Control reported by the San Acacia to Bosque Del Apache Unit in Socorro County, New Mexico

[14] Morphology of the Middle Rio Grande from Cochiti Dam to Bernalillo Bridge, New Mexico; This is a comprehensive piece studying the continuous geomorphologic changes in the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico and how this has been of interest for many governmental agencies involved with the management and operation of this river system. Due to sedimentation problems along this river, highly developed plans for sediment detention and flood control have been carried out

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[5] Ka-hee, Gene (2019). Traditional Leader, EPA General Assistant Program Manager within the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico.

[6] McDonald, Fiona (2018). Performing Water Rights on Cochiti Dam. Arlington, Virginia. American Anthropological Association.

[7] Pecos, Regis (2007). The History of Cochiti Lake from the Pueblo Perspective. University of New Mexico of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Natural Resources Journal.

[1] Cochiti Dam changed Pueblo Way of Life

[2] A Dam's 'Painful' History

[3] United States Census Bureau

[4] How Much Would You Pay For The Very Best Lawyer?

[15] Stopping the Flood of Damages from Cochiti Dam

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[8] Cochiti Dam: Taming the Rio Grande

[9] Cochiti Canyon Flood: Dixon Apple Orchard

[10] Keres Children's Learning Center

Meta information

Contributor:Sophia Livecchi, Skidmore College, [email protected]; A.J. Schneller, Skidmore College, [email protected], Jessica Plotnick, Skidmore College, [email protected]
Last update19/07/2021
Conflict ID:5373



Pueblo de Cochiti

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Cochiti Baseline Study: A Data Compendium

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Cochiti Dam Forming Cochiti Lake on the Rio Grande River

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