Orme Dam. Some say it's an economic blessing, others, a cultural curse, this proposed dam which would bottle up the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers just a few miles downstream from Fort McDowell and 18 miles east of Phoenix.

For many Arizona businessmen, developers, politicians, and residents, the dam is seen as a guardian against devastating seasonal floods and a means to store precious water. Many Phoenix developers and businessmen also are involved in the proposed Rio Salado project, a program that would turn the ugly scar by the Salt River through downtown Phoenix into a green belt of lakes, parks, restaurants, and shops. Orme Dam would guarantee the Salt would never again rage through its river bed, and riverfront land values would soar by 400 to 600 percent.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport already has a flood-control channelization project under way, but with plans in the works to add a runaway in the year 2000, the airport says it needs maximum flood protection and is a strong voice in the clamor for the dam. Many Phoenix citizens who suffered through monumental traffic jams when floods washed away their bridges are also yelling for the dam. Environmentalists, however, view the dam as a threat to wildlife, particularly the bald eagle.

Citizen tax groups claim the cost of the dam outweighs its benefits. And the 350 or so Indians living on Fort McDowell who would be flooded out if Orme Dam is built say the project is a disaster far worse than any dreamed up by Mother Nature; a disaster that ultimately could mean the death of the Yavapai tribe.

The fight over Orme Dam has been cracking like thunder for the past 10 years brewing quietly for 30 years before that. The storm will come to a head at the end of this month when the US Bureau of Reclamation concludes three years of examining the issue and recommends whether Orme Dam or one of three alternatives should be built. The entire matter eventually will be turned over the Secretary of the Interior James Watt for a decision.

Opponents of the dam -- a coalition of environmentalists, citizen tax groups, Indian organizations, and churches -- say most people don't know the whole story. they say there are many reasons not to build the dam, including the cost Orme would add to the price of water, the lower quality drinking water that would result from mixing clear. Verde River water with sulfate-high Colorado River water, and the questionable location of the dam over a number of geological fault lines. But far above all these arguments, they say, three reasons stand clear:

* Environment. The dam will turn the free-flowing Salt River into a stagnant lake, destroying one of the last wild segements of river in the state, and with it a unique ecosystem which supports, among other wildlife, the largest bird population density in the country -- more than 195 types in the area which would be covered.

* Bald eagles. The only population of bald eagles nesting in Arizona lives in the area threatened by the dam. these rare, desert-nesting birds, protected by the federal law, rely on the Verde River for food and can't fish in deeper lakes and reservoirs. The Audubon Society say that if the area is inundated, the sentitive eagles, already down to five according to some state estimates, will be wiped out.

* The Yavapai. The most stringent objections to the dam center on the fact that the Indians living on the 4-by-10-mile reservation behind it would have to be relocated, at great human cost.

Crickets leap out of the stubble as Hiawatha Hood crunches through the field he is clearing. At 68, Hiawatha calls himself a retired farmer, but there rarely is a day he isn't out sweating in the fields or repairing irrigations ditches in the 110-degree sun.

Hiawatha speaks from his heart. His words well out like water from a spring, seeming to overpower him at times. "We have been here before the white man, says , gesturing at the land. "The Great Spirit put us here. He said, 'You Indians take this land, live here, take care of it.' We did. Until the white man came into this world.Destroyed everything. they coming through Yavapai country and took everything. they see that gold, that yellow rock, and they go crazy. They fight each other. Then they get so crazy, they go after the Indian and kill him. they say, 'This gold, we want it, the Idians don't want us to have it.' So they went and killed off all our ancestors. then they took the land."

Hiawatha's ancestors were hunters, as were most of the 6,000 Yavapai who roamed central and western Arizona little more than 100 years ago. But as white and Mexican settlers dragged their wagons into the Arizona desert in the mid- 1800s, the Yavapai first were moved to government camps, then tracked down and slaughtered when they resisted the moves. The names of the places bear witness to the grisly stories: Skull Valley, where the Yavapai were murdered when they responded to an Army offer of free horses and wagons; Skeleton Cave, where a band of Yavapai hid out until the Army tracked them down and poured bullets into the cave; Bloody Basin, where several Yavapai clans were ambushed by soldiers who shot all who could not run fast enough.

Those who remained were rounded up and in 1875 were marched to San Carlos, and Apache reservation 180 miles away. Many who survived the difficult trip in the dead of winter later succumbed to smallfox at the crowded camp. And as a final indignity, the Yavapai tribal name was taken from them. Somehow confusing them with the Apache (rather conveniently, say the Yavapai, as in those days the warlike Apache were considered fair game), the government noticed their language was more like the Mohave, and so listed them as "Mohave-Apache" in their record books. The official designation remains to this day, even though none of the tribes are related except through recent intermarriages.

In 1900 a small band of Yavapai were allowed to leave San Carlos and headed back to their home, which had been occupied by Fort McDowell. Three years later , President Theodore Roosevelt granted them a small reservation in the area around the abandoned fort. "Don't sell this land," Roosevelt warned them. "Don't lease it. Don't give it away. this is your land now. Nobody is going to bother you again."

Hiawatha's voice grows husky. "It's pitiful," he says, watering the land given to him by the people who took it away in the first place, and now threaten to take it away again. "Sometimes when I think at night, tears come into my eyes when I look back on history, how my people were treated, how my land was taken. Today that land is worth billions. But to the Indians, it is worth more that. It was their home, where they were told to lived by the Great Spirit.

"Our ancestors who were slaughtered in the cave, they look down on us with tears in their eyes and they say, 'Stay with it, stay with it.' We will stay with it.

"Lot of people do not see it the way we see it. Money isn't everything. Millions of people all over the world today would give anything just to have a piece of this land right here. There's people in this world who have no homes, no country and no lands. We got this and we want to keep it. But today, if that Orme Dam goes Through, my people wil be no more."

Anthropologists agree with Hiawatha: If the Yavapai are forced to moved, the tribal unit may cease to exist. the alternatives study being conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation recently reported that relocation would have an "extraordinary and severe impact on the community," causing increases in illness and mortality rate, alcohol and drug abuse, divorce and child abuse, while decreasing the tribe's potential for ecnonomic self-sufficiency. Those who escape these devastating personal effects might simply drift away from the tribe once they no longer live on their historic homeland, and the connecting fibers of the Yavapai would be blown apart like wind blows apart a dandelion.

Like a giant game of "Let's Make a Deal," the Yavapai's future lies behind on of three doors -- the three alternatives identified by the Central Arizona Water Control Study. One alternative is Orme Dam; the others involve dams upstream from the reservation or on another river.

Over the years the dam has made some very powerful friends. All but one Arizona's congressional delegation is solidly behind it; Rep. Morris K. Udall (D), the lone holdout, has agreed to abide by the decision of the CAWCS.

"In my opinion, the best way to provide the needed water storage, flood control, and dam safety is to build Orme Dam," Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater says firmly.

CAWCS engineers aren't so firm in their convictions. "If you're trying to hang you hat on the difference in flood control [between Orme and non-Orme], you can't don it," says Joseph Dixon, project manager for the ARmy Corps of Engineers part in the water control. "We were hoping we would have a clear-cut decision, but what we are seeing is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate."

The alternatives break down as follows: (1) The Cliff/Roosevelt alternative (the names of two upstream dams) alternatives would strengthen and raise existing dams and build a new dam, yielding better downstream flood control and more water storage space; (2) The Confluence alternative would build Orme Dam, while making the same improvements to upstream dams as in the Cliff/Roosevelt alternatives; and (3) The New Waddell alternative again would make the Cliff/Roosevelt improvements, then construct a dam on an uninhabited stretch of the Aqua Fria River for added water storage capacity.

The Cliff/Roosevelt dam improvements are listed in all alternatives because the federal Safety of Dams Act says the existing dams on the Salt and Verde Rivers are not up to new standards and must be required. By combining these required Safety of Dams improvements with a New Waddell storage dam on the Aqua Fria, essentially the same flood protection and water storage capacity will be provided as with a dam at the confluence, and at less cost -- $764 million for Orme Dam, as opposed $746 million for New Waddell, according to CAWCS figures. The difference in flood-water level between the two alternatives is so slight the Corps of Engineers hasn't even bothered to map it.

"You would get a higher degree of flood protection with a large confluence structure, but it would be very difficult to differentiate between it and Cliff/Roosevelt," Dixon says.

Dixon admits that, in numerical terms, somewhat less land may be available for Phoenix development without Orme, although development would still be possible. But any cutback in land is anathema to those overseeing the development of the ninth largest city in the country, who say the Rio Salado project and airport expansions are essential to Phoenix growth.

The Orme Dam idea was born back in the 1940s, at about the same time as the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a scheme to haul Colorado River water 371 miles to thirsty central and southern Arizona. As originally conceived, a dam at the Salt-Verde confluence would store excess CAP water during the low-use winter months, against demand in the high-use sizzling summers. When the controversial CAP finally was approved by Congress in 1968, Orme Dam was written into the legislation. Nine years later, however, in a sweep of Western water projects, President Jimmy Carter axed the dam, citing environmental and Indian opposition.

The dam didn't stay down long, though. Over the next three years, Phoenix was hit with the worst floods it had seen all century, losing most of its bridges, a runaway at the airport, and suffering flooding in about 100 homes built in or near the Salt River flood plain. In response to public outcry for flood protection, Carter signed a bill in Oct. 1980, authorizing design development for Orme.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Reclamation formed the Central Arizona Water Control Study (CAWCS) in 1978, and charged it with the responsibility of coming up with alternatives to the dam. Dan Shaffer, economic planner for the Fort McDowell tribe, argues that the benefits of Orme don't outweigh the cost, "especially when we have an alternative that costs no more than the cheapest Orme Dam, with substantially the same benefits and without the horrendous side effects."

Even as developers let visions of green belts dance in their heads, the Yavapai have visions of the future Fort McDowell. Although federal aid was almost nonexistent for most of the past decade because the government believed the reservation would be flooded, the tribe recently wrangled money for a number of projects that will significantly improve life on the reservation in coming years: A $615,000 floodproof irrigation canal, $200,000 in equipment for a tribal farm and experimental crops of jojoba (which produce edible seeds and a valuable oil), a thriving sand and gravel business, and a $558,000 gym, built smack in the middle of the Orme Dam flood plain.

"In effect, the tribe's development was delayed 10 years after the CAP legislation went through in 1968," Shaffer says. "No federal agency was willing to commit money -- they acted as if the reservation was already condemmed. It be came sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because people would look at the tribe and say, 'See, they're not doing anything with that land anyway.'

"Like many small tribes, this tribe is just learning how the system works and how to get action," he continues. "Now for the first time in tribal history, agriculture is possible on a large scale. Within the next decade, Fort McDowell could become a showcase for tribal self-sufficiency."

The government has not formally offered the tribe anything in return for its land, because Orme is not a sure thing. But CAP legislation calls for the tribe to be given "fair market value" for Fort McDowell. In 1973 this amounted to about $33 million or $75,000 per person; today it would be twice that. There also has been talk of giving the Yavapai other lands, but the Bureau of Reclamation concedes there is not land comparable to Fort McDowell available.

Tribal chairman Norman Austin obliges a news photographer by trekking up to the tribal cemetery and posing beside the grave of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, a revered Yavapai who helped his people avoid a relocation threat in 1910. But Austin is not the posing type and after two frames have been clicked off, he abruptly wanders away among the other graves. "Florence A. Doka, born San Carlos, 1898, died at McDowell, march 14, 1926." "Wayne Bennet, died May 1970 in Vietnam conflict." It is the Yavapai's Arlington

If Orme DAm is built, the cemetery will be flooded at certain times of the year. Federal planners haven't solved the problem of what to do with the sacred burial ground, considering diking if off into an island, digging it up and moving it, or pouring a slab of concrete over the top and erecting a marker to stick up out the water. commented one observer: "We would laugh if we weren't crying."

The cemetery is a highly emotional issue in the midst of a highly emotional issue. For the Yavapai, it throws as harsh spotlight on the effects of Orme Dam: Even the Yavapai dead can't rest in peace.

Austin say he is haunted by another cemetery when he looks at the Fort McDowell headstones -- the cemetery of the Seneca Indians of upstate New York. Like the Yavapai, the SEneca had been assured by a president -- George Washington -- that their small reservation would be left alone. In fact, the Seneca had signed the oldest established treaty in US history which promised peace "as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run."

Like the Yavapai, the Seneca were confronted by a dam project which would flood most of their land -- in the 1930s. Kinzua Dam was proposed to protect Pittsburgh from floods and for water conservation. Like Orme Dam, viable and less costly alternatives to Kinzua were identified. And like the Fort McDowell tribe, the seneca fought the dam for many years, making their final appeal to President John F. Kennedy. They were turned down.

In 1964 the bones of Seneca ancestors were hastily dug from their sacred resting place and moved to a small rocky hillside, just ahead of the waters backing up behind Kinzua Dam.

"What they did to them is what they're doing to us," Austin says vehemently. "they moved them around, made them promises. When they built that dam, one elder committed suicide -- burned himself o teh spot. Other elders got sick and died. It hurt them a lot, what happened. That's why we're saying no to Orme Dam.

"If it comes to that point here, I've told people they won't see me walk off this reservation. They're gonna have to drag me off. . . . Sometimes the anger builds up in me so great I can't talk. Why won't people leave us alone? Why won't people leave us alone?"

Recently the Yavapai won a decisive first victory in their battle. in a surprise move, the Governor's Advisory Committee, a group of area mayors businessman, environmentalists, Indians, and local residents appointed by Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt to advise him on the dam, recommended that the new Waddell alternative be built instead of Orme Dam, citing as its reasons the cost of the projects, negative effects on the Indians, and the probable court battles , which would tie up any action for years if Orme Dam were chosen.

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