Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Orme Dam

Confluence of Salt and Verde rivers as seen from Phon D. Sutton recreation area, October 2010 (Image by Debra Groves )

Ft. McDowell Yavapai Indian reservation  2010 advertisement for ‘Orme Dam Victory Days’ celebration, October 2010 (Image by Debra Groves)

Protest of Orme Dam construction, circa 1970s (Source:

Confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers. Directions: North Power Rd. to Bush Hwy. Turn left into Phon D. Sutton recreation area.
The Orme Dam site was proposed to be located at, or just below the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers which is between the Beeline Highway (87) and the Bush Highway. The site can be accessed by taking North Power road till it becomes the Bush Highway, and turning left into the Phon D. Sutton recreation area, which is a part of the Tonto National Forest. Today, both rivers are free-flowing at this location, thanks primarily to the efforts of tribal community leaders of the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Indian reservation.
The Yavapai tribe historically had been nomadic, following seasonal variations in rain patterns in a territory that stretched from the Colorado to the Verde Rivers to the west and east, and the Gila and Salt Rivers in the South to the current day town of Ashfork in the north (Coffeen, 1972). The earliest contact with whites probably occurred during the 16th and 17th century when Spanish explorers moved through the area, but interaction intensified during the American Civil war when outposts, such as Camp McDowell, were established in Arizona (Coffeen, 1972). When precious metals were discovered in the state, a wave of migration created tensions in the area which were exacerbated by negative connotations associated with the ‘rebellious’ Apache tribe (Coffeen, 1972). Little, if any, distinction was made between different tribes, resulting in the forced migration of all native peoples onto reservations designated by the American government, and by 1903 portions of the old civil war camp located along the Verde River was given to the approximately 500 Yavapai Indians in the area (Coffeen, 1972). At this time, the Tribe began to take up farming, and it was in the early 1900’s that their water rights to the partial flow of the Verde was established (Coffeen 1972).
When the Central Arizona Project and its associated development initiatives was approved in 1968, the construction of the Orme Dam was included to create a reservoir for the growing Phoenix-Metro area, as well as to provide flood control (Espeland, 2001). However, had the dam been built, approximately two-thirds of the Fort McDowell Indian reservation would have been flooded, including homes, farmland, and burial grounds (Coffeen, 1972). This would have had a devastating effect on the community, forcing many to be displaced and to loose their livlihoods. While compensation for the land lost to the reservoir was included in the Dam’s plan, there was almost no effort to include the tribe in the planning of the project, nor did the Bureau of Reclamation (the agency of the government behind the project) make sustained effort to communicate with the tribe (Coffeen 1972). This created an environment of ‘distrust and suspicion’ around the project, and fueled the momentum to protest the dam’s creation (Coffeen, 1972).
The conflict over the Orme Dam was imbedded in the opposing interest of proponents who believed the dam was necessary for the growth and development of Arizona’s economy, and those who were worried about the social and ecological impacts the project would have, both for the people of the area, as well as native flora and fauna (Espeland, 2001). Not only would the proposed reservoir inundate the ancestral lands of the Yavapai, it would also destroy ecologically important riparian habitat that would affect many species, including the bald eagle (Espeland, 2001).
The Orme Dam project was finally abandoned in 1981, after over 10 years of struggle and legal battles (Espeland, 2001; Espeland 2002). This was done in part by creating alliances with environmental groups, and using the Environmental Impact Statement required by the National Environmental Policy Act to highlight the detrimental impact the project would have on many endangered species in the area. (Espeland, 2002). Perhaps most effectively, the Tribe utilized their long history of interaction with the American government, highlighting the many broken promises and injustices that had occurred time and time again (Espeland, 2002). The Tribe also engaged in a successful press relations campaign that involved marches, interviews, and dialogue that highlighted their cultural connection with the land, and that they were not willing to treat it as a commodity (Espeland, 2002).
The Yavapai’s defeat of Orme Dam has lent the tribe great political clout, which they have capitalized on to organize around other issues, such as defending the practice of Indian gaming, which has been a source of great revenue and economic stability for the tribal community (Espeland, 2002). To commemorate this historic victory, the Yavapai have a week of celebration, including a powwow, every year in early November (Espeland, 2001).
- Debra Groves, Edell Stinett, and Carshenia Butler
Coffeen, W. R. 1972. The effects of the Central Arizona Project on the Fort McDowell Indian Community. Ethnohistory. 19: 345-377.
Espeland, W. N. 2001. Bureaucrats and Indians in a contemporary colonial encounter. Law and Social Inquiry. 26: 403-433.
Espeland, W. N. 2002. Lessons learned from a small Native American community. Public Administration and Development. 22: 377-388.

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