Phoebe Suina on Preserving Tribal Water Rights

There are a lot of smart cookies in Indian Country, and Phoebe Suina, sole owner of Native-Owned, Woman-Owned High Water Mark LLC, is one of them.

Incorporated in 2013, Suina has managed to make a big imprint in environmental engineering across the southwest pueblos with an elite team of nine, complemented by strategic partnering. This approach should take her from $800,000 in this year to $1 million in 2019 as tribes begin to understand the criticality of environmental risk management. Small Business Administration 8(a) and HubZone certification, which she is currently pursuing, should further improve her ability to bid successfully on state and federal contracts as well.

Phoebe Suina (Humans of New Mexico)

With three Ivy League engineering degrees (two B.S.’s, one M.S.)  under her belt from Dartmouth College, and professional experience at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Los Alamos National Laboratory, Suina is now consumed with leaving a high water mark of her own in water and environmental management – in Indian Country. Given what Suina describes as the disproportionate impact of natural catastrophes on tribal nations, the need to engage High Water Mark’s services is not difficult to make.

While much of High Water Mark’s portfolio speaks to her team’s expertise in hazard management and emergency management, Suina herself is casting a long shadow on past practices of viewing water resources as simply surface and groundwater issues. And “tribal water rights” have become the shorthand for this intricate issue.

“I love water! I love and appreciate and respect the many facets of water,” exclaims Suina. “It’s really neat how water basically exemplifies all engineering disciplines – electrical, mechanical, chemical, systems. 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.”

And translate she has, especially in her role as the City of Bernalillo, New Mexico’s representative to the Sandoval County New Mexico Aquifer Water Protection & Oil and Gas Ordinance Citizens Working Group (CWG).  Established in March 2018, this group has tried to make quick work of drafting a water rights ordinance to “preserve and protect the county’s aquifers, groundwater, and surface water from the inherent risks associated with oil and gas drilling and production.” A significant portion of their charter is to also “preserve and protect Tribal and other historic, cultural and archaeological artifacts and sites” from the same as well. To their credit, the County Commissioners recognized the need to have public, community, and tribal input, and sought out qualified tribal individuals to sit on the CWG.

This is where Suina’s public policy mission in New Mexico formally began. Though she has held significant tribal contracts to assist several pueblos (Nambe, Pojoaque, Jemez, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, San Ildefonso) repair transportation routes and water infrastructure, and to beef up pueblo resiliency through hazard mitigation measures following floods, Suina’s personal interest in water rights policy has taken a recent, serious turn with this appointment.

Evident to Suina through her water management work and participation on the CWG is that there is a fundamental disconnect between pueblo values and U.S. law on water rights. Simply employing a mathematical formula to generate what she describes as “pluses and minuses” to determine acre feet per year for individual and commercial water use is endangering the pueblos’ access and use of aboriginal water sources, she believes. It’s also poor policy and worse law, especially for tribes.

Suina prefers a much more multifaceted view of water, one that includes water as tribal cultural property, and one that connects the birth to death cycle, flora and fauna symbiosis, and includes both individual and tribal ceremonial uses. She admits, though, that U.S. law cannot – yet – accommodate this much richer 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.”

Although not inconsistent with a systems approach, consideration of values beyond use has been highly contested in court, as evidenced in the lesser known case of JEMEZ v. ABOUSLEMAN regarding the Chaparral Girl Scout camp’s right to use pueblos’ water from the Jemez River, to the better known Dakota Access Pipeline Case in which Sioux tribes continue to fight contamination of a ceremonially significant water source.

Through her firm, Suina has been actively involved in educating the New Mexico government on the value that pueblos place on water and its uses, and pushing for its codification in regional, and hopefully eventually state and federal policy and law. To achieve this, Suina spends a substantial amount of time educating herself on current U.S. law and policy, issues that impede policy change, on the pueblo leadership values and objectives, and on stakeholder concerns to paint a complete picture of the problem.

“Different eyes may see it differently,” she gently concedes, while noting that it has also been an effective approach for engaging stakeholders on cultural values that few outside the pueblo have considered.

“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 laments. 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.


Moreover, tribes are getting bled dry by legal bills, because they are fighting water rights battles on a tribe-by-tribe basis. “We have to figure out a way to combine sources and resources while recognizing each tribe’s own sense of sovereignty to make headway,” according to Suina. “Understanding collectively that together you need to have a major political force like we did in 1680 during the Pueblo Revolt would be more effective and impact how the larger, more monied tribes are setting precedents in U.S. case law, because they can afford the legal expenses.”

It would indeed, and tribes are beginning to catch on, if somewhat cautiously.

“Outcomes depend on case law for Indian Country as well as the administration in place…. If we get case-based laws to establish standards on surface and groundwater, then we can ensure clean water for generations.”

In the meantime, Suina continues her campaign for those willing to listen.  Though not her stated intent, this could be good for business, too. Few Native firms have the engineering chops and knowledge of pueblo values that can perform both services for tribes, other governments, and industry at the same time. For this forty-something San Felipe – Cochiti scholar, its not a bad time in history to be in this business.




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