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The Gift of Native Wisdom At the Home of the Manhattan Project

Learn how the wisdom of Pueblo people is enhancing efforts to improve stormwater management at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

By Amy Nelson

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By maintaining traditional ways of life and integrating place-appropriate technologies, indigenous people have helped safeguard the world’s biodiversity for thousands of years. In the process, they have amassed an enormous body of deep, place-based knowledge – knowledge that is now becoming increasingly valued by those of us in the fields of conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design. But it is not only this reservoir of “traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)” that is improving our practices; it is also indigenous wisdom, and its application to problem solving.

Just ask Biohabitats associate engineer, Erin English.

When Ms. English was asked to serve as a technical expert for the plaintiffs in a Clean Water Act citizens’ lawsuit settlement over stormwater violations at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, she prepared herself for some potential conflict.

Initially founded to undertake the Manhattan Project during World War II, LANL now conducts a wide range of scientific research programs, including studies to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. In past decades, activities involving the disposal of hazardous chemicals and radioactive waste were not carefully regulated. Legacy contamination from those early years exists at the site of many former operations areas around the laboratory

The lawsuit stemmed from concerns that during storms, stormwater runoff was carrying polluted runoff from LANL’s mesas into canyons and ultimately the Rio Grande, a major drinking water source and important resource for irrigation, livestock, recreation and wildlife.

LANL’s 40-square-mile campus is located within the sacred ancestral homelands of Pueblo peoples. The Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Ohkay Owingeh, and Cochiti are among LANL’s closest neighbors today.

Many of the issues in the lawsuit were resolved through a new stormwater permit issued by the EPA under the Clean Water Act. Under this permit, LANL agreed to manage its stormwater sites to meet stringent requirements at over 400 legacy sites. The permit contains requirements for improving and stabilizing stormwater controls, and monitoring runoff from the sites in order to determine whether the controls are working effectively.

The Laboratory now employs a monitoring program to determine if stormwater is carrying any industrial or chemical pollutants at levels greater than those imposed by the permits. If the levels are exceeded, the Lab must construct additional controls across Laboratory property to further minimize the amount of contaminants in stormwater sediment that reach the Rio Grande.

Communities for Clean Water (CCW), a coalition of advocacy groups including Amigos Bravos, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the New Mexico Acequia Association, and Honor Our Pueblo Existence, is committed to making sure these requirements are met. As she prepared to consult CCW, associate engineer Erin English expected that relationships between its members and LANL would be strained, tense, and adversarial.

But that was before she met Marian Naranjo.

A member of the Santa Clara Pueblo and founder of Honor our Pueblo Existence (H.O.P.E), a non-profit dedicated to protecting the health and culture of Pueblo people, Ms. Naranjo has spent years working to ensure that the quality of stormwater from Los Alamos is improved.

Before the Lab’s existence, the land on which it now sits was, according to Ms. Naranjo, “pristine and sustained our life ways since time immemorial. Since the inception of the Manhattan Project, LANL’s presence has impacted us spiritually, changed our life ways, and degraded our environment,” Ms. Naranjo says. “LANL has some work to do! What is at stake is our cultural survival as indigenous people.”

Rather than anger, though, Ms. Naranjo brings to this effort the gift of an indigenous wisdom and world view that recognizes the vital importance of relationships, both person-to-person and people-to-place, in healing the land. It is a gift that has been shared with her by tribal elders, who have given H.O.P.E. their blessing to serve as the voice of Pueblo peoples on the matter of stormwater improvements at LANL.

To Ms. Naranjo and the Pueblo people, the site of the LANL campus is “a place that the Creator had given to us to care for.” Rather than battle with LANL officials, Ms. Naranjo builds a relationship of trust that enables LANL to embrace the Pueblo view that “we are the caretakers of this place.”

“In order for people to be on the same page, forming relationships is vital,” she says. “Once folks understand where each is coming from,” she says, a mutual respect emerges, which enables true collaboration.

Just how does she go about building these relationships? Ms. English shares an example, “At our first Public Meeting, Marian brought a small bowl of water and trimmings from native plants to the front of the room. In the form of an opening ceremony, she asked that we understand the right of all beings to clean water, and the deep spiritual significance it holds for the Puebloan people downstream. That simple, bold act set a tone that is certainly more open than your typical meeting between the government and citizens, a tone which has been carried through the process thus far. ”

LANL’s Surface Water and Canyon Investigations Program manager, Steve Veenis, the man responsible for orchestrating the Lab’s efforts to comply with the new stormwater permit, agrees. “[Marian] brings a calming, common sense approach to the table that allows us to have a conversation, rather than be adversarial.”

Pueblo elders have also helped LANL staff members understand the cultural importance of some of the sites affected by the permit. “We don’t always know the historical significance [of a site],” said Mr. Veenis. “Elders can tell us about this history of some of these locations and provide insights into areas that were used for religious ceremonies.” This information, according to Mr. Veenis, helps the staff ensure that extra care is given to such sites.

Despite a troubled history and the mixed feelings that still exist among Pueblo people regarding LANL’s impact on the environment, progress has been made in healing both the land and human relationships. Openness shown by H.O.P.E. and people in the Pueblo community is increasingly reciprocated by LANL.

The Lab hires many Pueblo students who are pursuing environmental technology degrees, sharing education and technologies that can help address environmental challenges in their communities. Representatives from the San Ildefonso Pueblo have joined LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department on a regular rafting trip on the Rio Grande to monitor spring water along a major canyon near the Laborator. The Lab has a Tribal Relations program, and LANL regularly updates the community on its progress with the stormwater permit through public meetings.

LANL Environmental scientist Jeff Walterscheid reports that LANL is making progress, from installing erosion control measures to retrofitting stormwater control sites using Low Impact Development and green infrastructure techniques that better integrate with the environment.

Ms. English is hopeful. “I believe that the relationship that now exists between LANL, HOPE and the other coalition members has created a uniquely collaborative spirit, one that is actually very well suited to addressing the enormous challenge of reducing polluted runoff from hundreds of sites ranging from highly urbanized to remote, wild and rugged,” she says. “We are actively listening to one another and looking for ideas together. This is no ordinary stormwater permit, so I suppose the solutions wouldn’t be either.”

Mr. Walterscheid, who grew up near Los Alamos, admits, “There were tensions in the past, but through my lifetime, relations with the local Pueblos have become much better. We understand that what is part of their well-being needs to be part of ours. We are impacting their history.”

As for Erin English, she no longer anticipates conflict. She chooses, instead, to hold tight to the lessons indigenous wisdom have imparted to her on this project. “Marian and other Pueblo community members’ deeply compassionate worldview, stewardship of place and clarity of purpose have absolutely impacted my work as an engineer,” she says. “It has also strengthened my belief that listening to and working directly with indigenous communities is essential; it should be a given wherever possible.”

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