Orme Dam


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This is the story of a Central Arizona Project proposed dam that met resistance in the seventies and eighties from the Yavapai Indian Nation, the Maricopa Audubon Society and others.  The dam was never built, defeated by the so-called “little people” who fought to prevent it.



Kimberley Williams: My grandfather's words to my father were that the president told the men that were there, "When I give you this paper, I don't want you to sell your land, to lease your land, or to give it away."

Narrator: In the autumn, the Yavapai Nation celebrates Orme Dam Victory Days at Fort
McDowell. It's a time to celebrate survival.

Kimberley Williams: In the beginning, at first it was a three-day event that he had called for. And it became an annual event. And to this day we have the Orme Dam celebration.

Speaker: I am indeed pleased to be here to celebrate this dream which has long been held by many of us and by many here in the state of Arizona: delivery of Colorado River water to Phoenix through the facilities of the Central Arizona Project.

Narrator: In 1968, Congress authorized the building of Orme Dam at the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers as part of the Central Arizona Project. Its main purpose was to store C.A.P. water in the winter for use in the summer.

Carolina Butler: The Central Arizona Project was, like motherhood and apple pie, it was a sacred cow. You didn't mess with it. It was going to be built. One of the -- the main feature of the Central Arizona Project was the Orme Dam. Right in the middle of this proposed Orme Dam was this small tribe of Yavapai Indians living on the Fort McDowell Reservation. But the water would have backed up into two-thirds of the reservation. It would have inundated the village where everybody lived. They were going to be given money for their land and their homes. I think $33 million total was the estimated figure at the time. And then they would be given land in exchange on the north -- to the northeast of the reservation, which is rocky and dry and not fertile. The tribe would cease to exist if they had been relocated.

Kimberley Williams: My father would say, "If you put a dollar in one hand and soil in the other, which will last longer?"

Narrator: The dam was never built, largely due to the so-called "'little' people" in this photograph.

Ron Schilling: You had David, represented by the Indians, the environmentalists, versus Goliath, which was most of the Arizona congressional delegation, the major water officials in the county and state governments.

Narrator: Not to mention the major media and the real estate developers and agribusiness, which was dependent on the Salt River Project.

Bob Witzeman: To grow surplus crops, that's what the water would have been used for, not actually for toilets and dishwashing.

Narrator: Flooding Fort McDowell would have created another casualty. As it happened, the bald eagle nested there, and it was an endangered species.

Bob Witzeman: Well, this t-shirt is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and it represents the battle. And here's the eagle being flooded on the Indian reservation. It's going under the waters of the dam. And the date on here, July 4th, 1976, is the date of the first environmental hearing, environmental impact statement hearing, that met downtown in Phoenix.

Frank Welsh: Then they said, "Well, let's see, we'll have to justify it for something else because we've shown that 80% of the water is consumed by agribusiness." So then they said, "Oh, the floods came." Oh, my God, now we have to fight the floods.

Ron Schilling: It was more to do with the rain falling on the snowpack up in the mountains, and that caused a tremendous amount of water to come down the Salt and Verde Rivers fast. And so the Salt River Project, of course, who managed the dams, decided, "We have no choice. We've got to go ahead and release water." And suddenly, you had – what was normally a dry riverbed going through Phoenix was a rushing torrent of water.

Narrator: Controlling the floodwaters in the '70s and '80s became the main argument for the building of Orme Dam, but opponents argued that building better bridges was more economical. And always, the Yavapai Nation and their allies fought back.

Norman Austin: I think it's about time that this dam should be just stopped completely, and just leave our people alone. We are just peaceful people.

Minnie Williams: When we were placed here, the almighty promised us the food off in the deserts and made us out of clay, he promised he'd return. For us, that's the reason we want to remain in our holy ground there and worship as we please.

Ron Schilling: The minute that you decide Orme Dam, you -- you've got all kinds of delays and lawsuits and Indians and eagles and inner tubers, and you name it. So, as I say, Orme Dam is more of the problem than a solution.

Frank Welsh: And I told the proponents of the C.A.P. that if they didn't pull Orme Dam out, that it would kill their whole project.

Narrator: The Yavapai decided to send a congregation to Washington to argue their cause. Twelve-year-old Kimberley Williams was part of the group.

Kimberley Williams: Our understanding was that the government didn't know that there were people actually living in Fort McDowell. So we wanted to go there to show them who we were.

Carolina Butler: One of them, I remember, he was a Senator from Florida. He says, "We were told there was nobody living at Fort McDowell."

Narrator: The tribe also marched on the state capitol.

Kimberley Williams: Not long after that, our Chairman, Norman Austin, had asked then-Secretary James Watt to come out and visit Fort McDowell.

Narrator: Eventually, the Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, visited the reservation.

Bob Witzeman: Until Watt arrived, it was -- it was difficult to conceive that this was at an end.

Kimberley Williams: Sometime later he – I believe it was in November, he had issued a statement saying that he was not going to have the Orme Dam built.

Carolina Butler: I can still remember, I walked outside my front door, picked up the Arizona Republic, you know, read the headline, and leaped into the air.

Ron Schilling: And so by the end of 1981, even the staunch supporters of Orme realized they were losing the battle.

Bob Witzeman: The little people can win, just the regular citizens, if they care.

Carolina Butler: The Indians, when they found their voice, they said, "No." And for 10 years, they kept saying “No!”

Kimberley Williams: After all these years, yeah, there's a few cheers that want to come out. And they're more of gratefulness, humbleness, thankfulness for the support that we had, because if we didn't have that support, we wouldn't be here.