Community members of the Akimel O’otham (Gila River), Tohono O’odham, and Pii-Posh (Salt River Maricopa) tribal nations of southern Arizona have resisted this project since at least the 1980s. The project now awaits US Army Corps permitting approval, a story eerily similar to the ongoing controversies at Standing Rock. The tribes are also awaiting a Ninth Circuit decision. As various community members are submitting public comments on their own on behalf of denying the permit, it is encouraged that other supporters do the same before the comment period closes this Friday. (See the end of the article for details on how.)
Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) is forcefully proceeding with a new highway project that will desecrate sacred South Mountain and parallel the Gila River Indian Community. This, like Standing Rock, is yet another example of how infrastructure projects are irreversibly damaging and destroying important cultural resources. The numerous indigenous tribes in Arizona have banded together to oppose this project when opposition from the local tribe failed to convince ADOT to halt construction.
ADOT claims there is a significant need for the project as it reduces traffic time for certain motorists in the Phoenix population. It also insists the road construction, existence, and future repair will not significantly or adversely affect impacted communities. Rather, ADOT claims it has chosen the least impactful route that will contribute to economic development.
As with Energy Transfer Partner’s premature construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, ADOT has begun roadwork while:
1) the case is still being reviewed in the Ninth Circuit
2) the USACE Clean Water Act compliance permits have not yet been issued.
A Questionable Motive
Why the Loop 202 Extension needs to be built has not been adequately presented to the community. Although ADOT claims it has found the best route, the most contested portion of the route—the Central segment on Pecos Road that separates the Gila River reservation from the Ahwatukee Foothills and slices through South Mountain—has only ever had one route proposed. ADOT is essentially squeezing its project along the perimeter of tribal lands in an attempt to promote expansion in a city whose own limits are just as bounded.
Phoenix already supports its population by pumping water from the Colorado River using coal from the Navajo Reservation through the controversial Central Arizona Project canal. Not only is the city’s population already over its hydrological carrying capacity, but it is also finitely bounded by tribal and federal lands. This includes increasingly drying and combusting National Forests.
Ahwatukee residents oppose an increase in traffic, noise pollution, and air pollution in their secluded section of the city. The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) opposes the drainage of roadway-contaminated waters its traditional farming lands are expected to receive. Both tribal groups and those with recreational interests insist the destruction of the sacred South Mountain (Moadag Thoag in the local language) is enough of a reason to have the project immediately halted.
Given the long and ongoing history of water disputes with tribes in this area, and the famine GRIC previously faced from water diversion, the questionable potential impacts to these waters should be taken more seriously than ADOT has in its previous documentation. Its argument that this road is necessary for the local communities is not supported by its lack of ingress and egress that might provide accessibility for tribal members, or for customers to any tribal business. Instead, the construction only seems to promote increased environmental impacts without substantial guarantee of protection from irreversible damages. So why the urgency in finally hammering out such a long-fought project?
Some say this is part of a larger CANAMEX scheme. Those in opposition of Loop 202 have pointed out the similarities between highway proposals around the GRIC, stating that Loop 202 is simply another truck bypass for the Sun—well, Canamex—Corridor. Proposed segments along I-10 and 60 already connect cities like Tucson and Phoenix as part of the NAFTA-related infrastructure plan to connect Mexico and Canada.
Clearly, the economic development interests ADOT has in this project does not rest with the peoples whose ancestors have occupied this space since time immemorial.
More Reasons to be Skeptical
The Connect 202 Partners, who were selected for this Private-Public Partnership (P3) project, boast how quickly they plan to hammer out this project. Connect 202 won the bid after being shortlisted by ADOT from a pool of five partnerships. Many firms were thirsty for a piece of the long-planned and discussed alternative route in the southwestern area of Phoenix, and many made it on to Connect 202’s sub-consultant list … including Parsons Brinckerhoff.
If you’ve heard of Parsons Brinckerhoff, it may be because of this Canadian company’s history with the Big Dig project in Boston. This is the same firm that faced criminal charges after cutting corners on the enormous underground project. After violating ethics rules in the name of expediting a project that was falling behind schedule, the firm was found responsible for preventable construction flaws that resulted in a death. And now they’re being tasked with the engineering to another enormous, fast-paced project.
While these companies are already realigning utility poles, demolishing homes, and constructing areas of the project that will not require a permit from the US Army Corps, community members are banding together to demand that they’re stopped. On May 9, 2017, a public hearing was hosted by the Army Corps at the Gila River Boys and Girls Club in Laveen, Arizona. One hundred percent of the people who spoke at the meeting were in opposition to the project, citing everything from their beliefs as tribal community members to their desire as Phoenix recreationalists to preserve their hiking trails and endangered desert tortoise populations.
When tribal members repeated the damage that would be done to their sacred mountain and their prayer rituals, ADOT reiterated its plan to construct animal crossings over the highway. As can be imagined, this response frustrated and even insulted the religious practitioners whose needs were not being heard. They asked how the Army Corps determines water quality—by chemical parts per million and cubic feet of dredged soil?—for a community that believes water has a memory. They asked if ADOT remembered when water flowed so heavily over the mountain that it looked like a waterfall, and what protection would be offered to them when the floodwaters blow out their design and wash the roadway onto tribal lands?
Finally, A Violation of UNDRIP
UNDRIP—the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—clearly prohibits this kind of construction and the irreversible impacts it will have on tribal communities. You can frame the project in a Western sense and still be able to identify key failures that show why it should be stopped. If you frame it with an indigenous paradigm, it’s a heart-stopping assault on religious freedom, identity, and access to culture.
Even the Huhugam Heritage Center in the GRIC has a second floor dedicated to the local mountains. These mountains play roles in the community’s creations stories and ancient existence. The mountain’s physical being and the community’s history are simultaneously under attack by this colonial project. The waters that flow from the mountain are at risk for chemical and spiritual contamination. When those waters have passed the project, they will either settle on tribal farmlands or in the Salt and Gila Rivers—rivers that give the names to the local tribes. Rivers that have sustained these desert “river peoples” for their entire existence and which are already under attack by imposing outside populations.
How do you measure cultural loss and damage? How can you quantify the spiritual impact these communities will feel if ADOT further harnesses the free-flowing river, if they dewater and dredge it in order to construct more bridges for non-tribal members?
How You Can Help:
Please check out the resources linked below for further information. In the meantime, consider submitting a public comment to the following:
EMAIL: [email protected]
DEADLINE: Comments to be received to the Los Angeles office by Friday, May 19th, 2017
ARMY CORPS RESOURCES
Army Corp Permit document (also attached as Google link with my highlights/notes)
GILA RIVER RESOURCES
#NoLoop202 #DefendTheSacred – No South Mountain Freeway
Gila River at 9th Circuit
Photo: Getty Images