Zuni Salt Lake

United States
Report By
Amy Corbin
November 1, 2003
November 1, 2003

Sixty miles south of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico lies Salt Lake, home of the Zuni’s Salt Mother deity. When water evaporates in the summer, it leaves a layer of salt on the lake bottom, which is harvested by pilgrims, including medicine men coming from Zuni and other neighboring tribes. The Salt River Project, an Arizona-based public utility, intended to build a massive coal stripmine just 11 miles northeast of the lake. After nearly 2 decades of opposition from the Zuni Tribe, environmentalists and concerned citizens, the SRP relinquished their permits in August 2003. “It’s a tremendous victory for all Indian tribes concerned with sacred sites issues,” says Zuni Councilman Dan Simplicio.

The Land and Its People

Zuni Salt Lake is home to Salt Woman, called Ma’l Oyattsik’i by the Zunis. Sacred trails, like umbilical cords, tie the lake to the Zuni villages and to other sacred sites around the area. Zuni men follow these trails to gather the salt which embodies the flesh of the Salt Mother herself. Other pueblos, including the Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna use the salt for their ceremonies — as their clan ancestors from Chaco Canyon did a thousand years ago. Apache and Navajo also claim use. A 185,000 acre area around the lake, known as “The Sanctuary” or A:shiwi A:wan Ma’k’yay’a dap an’ullapna Dek’ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne, contains burial grounds and shrines and by tradition is a neutral zone where members of various tribes may come together without conflict. In 1985, the U.S. government returned the lake itself, and 5,000 acres surrounding it, to Zuni control. Following this, however, the Salt River Project (SRP), the nation’s third-largest public utility, was permitted to start working in the Sanctuary Area, launching studies for a proposed 18,000-acre Fence Lake Coal Mine on state, federal and privately-owned land. SRP wanted to stripmine 80 million tons of coal over the next 50 years, construct a 44-mile rail line to carry the coal to the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns, Arizona, and sell the electricity to 190,000 Phoenix residents.

SRP was first granted a state mining permit to operate in 1996. New Mexico mining regulations require that actual mining on state lease lands begin in the third year of a five-year permit. In 1999, when three years had lapsed, the state permit was extended without Zuni knowledge, and then the State renewed the original five-year permit on July 12, 2001.

The primary issue was to what degree SRP’s pumping from the underlying Dakota Aquifer (85 gallons a minute; 2.2 billion gallons over 50 years) might reduce the water and salt in Zuni Salt Lake, which is fed directly by the Dakota Aquifer. Several hydrological studies were done, with conflicting conclusions. The state of New Mexico’s Coal Mine Program determined that the draining of the aquifer eleven miles from Salt Lake would not affect the lake and renewed the state permit on the grounds that the Zuni and other opponents did not bring new information to light. The Zuni pointed out that the SRP did not take previous studies into account and did not give them adequate time to prepare their appeal.

Two agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior disagreed about the wisdom of issuing the federal “life of mine” permit. In 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a report by an independent hydrologist studying the potential damage to Salt Lake. This study concluded that pumping would reduce the water and salt in the lake and that the proposed monitoring plan would not be sufficient to detect reductions in the level of the aquifer. However, the Office of Surface Mining contested these conclusions and recommended that the mine be approved. In May 2002, the Bush administration and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton approved the permit in a climate of fear and rapid energy development. The permit was signed by deputy interior secretary Steven J. Griles, a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

SRP’s mine plan called for pumping 85 gallons per minute (primarily to control dust), but SRP had underground water rights sufficient to extract up to 900 gallons per minute. Because of Zuni concerns about the Dakota Aquifer, the 2002 federal permit required that SRP take water from the Atarque Aquifer, which lies above the Dakota. But this was not endorsed by any new hydrological studies and the Zuni argued that depletion of the Atarque Aquifer would also damage the lake.

While possible water depletion occupied the attention of various government agencies, the Zuni were also concerned about: railroad tracks that the company had started to build to transport the coal, which would disturb the trails leading to the lake; coal dust and other airborne particles that might have polluted the water and the salt; and the mining process itself, which would have disturbed other sacred sites, ceremonial shrines and burials in the area. According to the Zuni Tribe, there are 5,000 archaeological sites within the lease area, and more than 500 ancestral human burials. When construction of the rail line began in the fall of 2002, four human remains were disturbed within the first few weeks.

In 1999, three years after the state issued the first permit, federal officials determined the large Sanctuary Area around the lake to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (the lake itself was already on the Register). On May 29, 2003, Zuni Salt Lake and the Sanctuary Area were listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new list of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in America. The majority of New Mexico’s congressional delegation also weighed in on the matter, writing to federal regulators to express their concern about damage to the lake.

Current Situation

Just months later, on August 4, 2003, the Salt River Project announced that it would relinquish all permits and coal leases for the proposed Fence Lake coal stripmine. SRP claimed in a press release that it has found a cleaner, more economical source of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, but the Zuni Tribe and the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition can rest assured that their intense, well-organized, and spiritually-based opposition to the 18,000 acre industrial disaster was the real reason SRP decided to pull the plug on the coal mine. The company will be returning its leases and permits to state and federal agencies and closing down its operations in the area. This decision brings immediate relief to the Zuni and other tribes whose cultural and spiritual lives are intertwined with this landscape. Permanent protection in the form of a long-term, federally-supported management plan and/or listing in the National Register of Historic Places is now essential for the entire Sanctuary around the lake.

While an important victory in the preservation of sacred lands has been achieved, in the long term, energy conservation and development of renewable energy sources represent the best long-term strategy to protect the planet and other sacred places like Zuni Salt Lake.


Edward Wemytewa, Councilman
Pueblo of Zuni
P. O. Box 339
Zuni, N. M. 87327

Roman Pawluk, Director
Natural Resource Department
Pueblo of Zuni
P.O. Box 339
Zuni, NM 87327


“Utility Drops Plans for Mine.” Santa Fe New Mexican, August 5, 2003.

“Mine Not Approved at Government Meeting.” Santa Fe New Mexican, October 25, 2001.

“Agency to Consider Coal-Mining Project.” Santa Fe New Mexican, October 24, 2001.

“Sacred Land Under Siege.” Santa Fe New Mexican, January 7, 2001.

“Official’s Lobbying Ties Decried; Interior’s Griles Defends Meetings as Social, Informational.” Washington Post, September 24, 2002.

Statement from the attorney for the Pueblo of Zuni

Testimony of former Zuni Governor Malcolm Bowekaty before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 16, 2002 regarding the Department of Interior’s failure to fulfill its trust responsibility to protect Salt Lake and associated cultural resources.

“The Salt Woman and the Coal Mine” by Winona LaDuke. Sierra Magazine, November 2002.