Tiny Yavapai Indian tribe wins battle to keep dam from flooding its land

The tiny Yavapai Indian tribe has cause for celebration this Thanksgiving, after overcoming powerful business and political interests in Arizona to keep its reservation.

Interior Secretary James Watt has announced his decision not to build Orme Dam at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers in Arizona. The flood control and water storage structure would have flooded most of the small Fort McDowell Indian Reservation just east of Phoenix, homeland of the last few hundred Yavapai Indians. Instead, Mr. Watt is supporting a dam on another river in an unihabited area, which will provide essentially the same benefit as Orme Dam for water-conscious Phoenix and central Arizona, at less cost. Congress is expected to vote on appropriations for the $746 million project next spring.

Watt's decision capped almost 40 years of debate over Orme Dam, in which Arizona politicians, real estate developers, and agribusinessmen pushed hard for the dam over the Yavapai's objections. The dam was designed to control seasonal flooding, open more land for development, and store water from the yet-to-be completed Central Arizona Project.

Orme appeared to be a sure thing until this September, when a three-year $10 million federal study concluded that the Yavapai tribe would be virtually wiped out if it were forced to move from its reservation. Equally important, the study concluded there were viable, less expensive alternatives to Orme Dam. Faced with those political realities, hard-core support for Orme Dam rapidly drained away.

The federal study's findings confirmed what the Yavapai have been charging all along, backed only by the Audubon Society (concerned with saving bald eagle nesting sites on the reservation) and a handful of concerned citizens.

Watt, who visited Fort McDowell in September, said in a memo explaining his Nov. 12 decision that ''the fact that impacts on the Fort McDowell Indian tribe are avoided'' was his major reason for choosing a different dam on the Agua Fria River.

''We won big,'' says Carolina Butler, a Scottsdale housewife who is one of the leaders in the fight to save the Yavapai. ''The last Indian victory like this was Little Big Horn.''

Thousands of Yavapai once roamed all of central and western Arizona, but in little more than 100 years their numbers have been reduced to about 350. Their 4 -by-10-mile reservation was given to them in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who said: ''This is your land now. Nobody is going to bother you again.'' Anthropologists warn that the fragile tribal structure might be destroyed by another relocation.

The Yavapai's celebration of their recent victory is tempered by a certain pragmatism. ''I guess Orme Dam is dead - but we haven't buried it,'' said Hiawatha Hood, a tribal elder. ''Everybody is happy, but we're tired. Maybe in two or three years, they'll be hollering for that dam again. When the government wants something, they always get it.''

To help ensure that this won't happen, tribal chairman Norman Austin is working to get legislation included in the dam appropriations package which would take away the secretary of interior's power to condemn Indian lands.

''This isn't really over, until legislation like this is passed,'' he said. ''Otherwise, they could just bring it up again.''

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