High Water Mark LLC: Native, Woman-Owned Business Protects Water as Tribal Cultural Property

With a background in environmental engineering and management, Suina has managed multi-million dollar emergency and disaster assistance projects for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in addition to her previous career at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). (high-watermark.com)

Since Phoebe Suina (San Felipe / Cochiti) founded Native- and woman-owned High Water Mark LLC, in 2013, she and her elite team have managed to make a big impact on environmental engineering across the southwest Pueblos.

Her business handles hazard management and emergency management, though Suina is particularly passionate about defending water resources and addressing surface and groundwater issues. In short, she’s fired up about Tribal water rights.

Phoebe Suina (Humans of New Mexico)

Suina told Native Business about the disproportionate impact of natural catastrophes on Tribal Nations — and this conversion happened pre-pandemic. So it only stands to reason that High Water Mark LLC’s services have risen in demand in recent months. 

READ MORE: Phoebe Suina on Preserving Tribal Water Rights

“I love water! I love and appreciate and respect the many facets of water,” exclaimed Suina.

Her enthusiasm is endearing, and it’s backed up by credibility: three Ivy League engineering degrees (two B.S.’s, one M.S.) from Dartmouth College, plus professional experience at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Los Alamos National Laboratory

“It’s really neat how water basically exemplifies all engineering disciplines — electrical, mechanical, chemical, systems,” she continued. “How water moves, how water flows — water’s chemical and physical attributes — encompass all of that. The program I was in required me to have a taste of all other specialties, and I was having real trouble in electrical engineering. I could not grasp electrical engineering until I had a hydraulics class the next semester. Then it all made sense. It was a matter of different nomenclature. But now that I have the background in water, I can understand electrical and other disciplines because I can translate it into hydraulic language.”

Suina has held significant Tribal contracts to assist several Pueblos — including Nambe, Pojoaque, Jemez, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, San Ildefonso — to repair transportation routes and water infrastructure, and to beef up Pueblo resiliency through hazard mitigation measures following floods. She’s also been instrumental in serving the City of Bernalillo, New Mexico. 

Suina prefers a much more multifaceted view of water than the legal definition allows.

Hers includes water as Tribal cultural property, and connects the birth to death cycle, flora and fauna symbiosis, and includes both individual and Tribal ceremonial uses. 

Suina admits, though, that U.S. law cannot — yet — accommodate this rich understanding of the much more complex relationship between water and life. The disconnect is with the word “use.” 

For Suina — and the Pueblos — it’s not just the geographical flow of the river, but its complete ecology — from how it comes down as rain to how it converts to surface and groundwater, or as Suina puts it, “the inputs and outputs as it flows.”

The High Water Mark team has completed projects for the Pueblo of Jemez. Pictured: Jemez River (Courtesy Suina)

Through her firm, Suina has been actively involved in educating the New Mexico government on the value that Pueblos place on water, pushing for its codification in regional, and hopefully eventually state and federal policy and law.

“I was taught to respect water and rivers because we would need them to live.  We can’t take them for granted, that our way of life has been developed to continue to respect and never to lose focus or forget that aspect of water and how much we need it. We take our ceremonial water rights from the source on a daily basis and don’t have time to run it through a filter,” Suina said. 

Whether the state or federal government can grasp this concept is not evident, but it is necessary if all of the Tribal water rights cases currently on U.S. federal court dockets are to be resolved, she said. 

“If we get case-based laws to establish standards on surface and groundwater, then we can ensure clean water for generations,” she added.