In the Desert, a Soul's Journey vs. Water Risk

Times Staff Writer

In the Mojave Desert, just west of the California-Arizona border, an ancient pattern of lines inscribed on the desert floor marks out the pathway to heaven for a small group of American Indians.

Once covering 50 acres, the so-called Topock Maze is held sacred by the Fort Mojave tribe as a place of final atonement, the destination of a soul's lifetime journey along the Colorado River from Spirit Mountain, 40 miles to the north in Nevada.

These days, however, tribe members say that modern civilization -- in the form of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. water treatment plant -- is blocking their road to the afterlife. The tribe claims that the plant, completed but not yet operating, is close enough to a surviving portion of the maze to disrupt their spiritual journeys. It is suing the utility and state regulators in an effort to have the facility torn down or moved.

PG&E; and state regulators contend that the treatment plant is vital to an emergency effort to stop highly polluted groundwater from reaching a stretch of the Colorado River that provides drinking water for 22 million people in Southern California and neighboring states. But that argument doesn't mollify the tribe.

"This shows a total lack of respect for our beliefs about where we go to after we pass from this life," Nora McDowell, chairwoman of the 1,100-member Fort Mojave tribe, said during a recent interview at the tribal offices in Needles.

McDowell said the tribe was readying all of its resources, which include a small empire of casinos and local businesses, to bankroll its legal and lobbying effort to protect the maze.

"By God," she vowed, choking back tears, "you're going to hear from us."

As part of their campaign, tribal leaders took a group of state lawmakers and other state and federal officials on a tour of the site Friday. The political push won backing last week from the National Congress of American Indians, which urged the U.S. Congress to hold oversight hearings.

Mojave officials acknowledge that some tribal members attended state-sponsored workshops about the pollution cleanup effort. But they allege that plans to build the treatment plant were pushed through with little input from the tribe.

"PG&E; knew that the Mojave hold deep spiritual and cultural ties to the Colorado River, the Topock Maze and other cultural and sacred places in the region," the suit alleges. "PG&E; never 'worked closely' with the tribe 'to identify potential impact to cultural or biological resources.' "

PG&E; spokesman Jon Tremayne declined to comment on the suit, noting that the San Francisco-based utility was holding settlement talks with the tribe. Although PG&E; is "very respectful" of the Mojave's spiritual beliefs, he said, it strongly supports state officials' conclusion that construction of the Topock water treatment plant was a crucial step in protecting the Colorado River.

The conflict over the Topock Maze is the latest in a series of campaigns by Native Americans to protect sites in California that they consider sacred.

Over the last few years, tribal activists have blocked a Canadian company's plan to open a gold mine in the state's southeastern corner and have challenged a power company's effort to tap geothermal energy sources by drilling into underground pockets of steam near the Oregon border.

American Indians also oppose a proposal to raise the height of the Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River, which could lead to the flooding of dozens of ceremonial sites. And Native American lobbying in Sacramento last year persuaded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the first-ever law requiring local governments to consider protection of sacred sites as part of their long-range land-use planning.

"Their most important places have to be protected, and it's not necessarily a physical place," said Christopher McLeod, a San Mateo County filmmaker who made a documentary about Native American sacred sites. "It has historical and personal implications because these are cultures that really take their spiritual responsibilities seriously."

The origins of the Topock Maze are hazy. But the dozens of roughly parallel windrows of earth and sun-blackened pebbles -- some running for hundreds of yards -- have long been central to the religion of the Mojave, who call themselves "the people of the river" in their ancestral language. As the endpoint of a soul's transit along the Colorado, the maze "is the essence of what it means to be Mojave," tribal spokeswoman Gentry Medrano said.

Less than a third of the original maze survives on the creosote bush and sage-dotted bluffs near the Colorado River narrows. The California Southern railroad was pushed through the middle of the maze in the 1880s. The fabled U.S. 66 came through the area in 1926 but pointedly skirted the maze, as did a PG&E; Corp. pipeline built in the 1950s.

What remains of the maze is protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but any remnant of solemnity is punctuated by the whine of Jet Skis and the putter of houseboats on the river below. Hundred-car freight trains frequently speed along on the nearby two-track rail line. And big rigs roar down Interstate 40, a six-lane freeway that replaced Route 66 in the 1970s.

Building a treatment plant so close to the maze represents another unnecessary insult to the long-suffering Mojave, tribal members say.

"We can't do anything but remove it," said Ashley Hemmers, 19, home for the summer from Yale University. "We have to save what we have left" of our culture.

The tribe's lawsuit, filed April 4 in Sacramento County Superior Court, accuses PG&E;, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California of violating the California Environmental Quality Act in their haste to keep pollution from reaching the river.

From 1951 to 1969, PG&E; dumped at least 108 million gallons of water laced with hexavalent chromium into the ground around Topock. The utility used the chemical compound, a known carcinogen referred to as chromium 6 and made infamous by the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," to prevent corrosion and retard the growth of mold in a cooling tower at a compressor station that pushes natural gas through its pipelines.

A monitoring well drilled in February detected chromium 6 only 60 feet from the Colorado in concentrations seven times greater than state safety standards. A month later, technicians found even higher levels at a nearby well.

Although no chromium 6 has been detected in the river, regulators are alarmed because intakes about 30 miles below the contaminated site supply drinking water to Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities in the Southwest.

State officials first ordered PG&E; to begin removing the chromium 6 in 1995, but cleanup efforts were delayed. In June 2004, the state declared an emergency and provided PG&E; with a legal exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act, giving the utility more leeway in tackling the problem.

At about the same time, PG&E; received state permission to build a $15-million, 7,000-square-foot water treatment plant alongside Bat Cave Wash below the compressor station and about 50 yards from a surviving portion of the Topock Maze. It's purpose: to increase pumping activity in an effort to pull the plume of contaminated water back from the river.

Construction began in October, and the plant is expected to run for up to 10 years, even though regulators refer to it as "an interim measure." The plant was completed last month.

The Mojave argue that PG&E; and the state never provided scientific evidence that the treatment plant could be put only near the maze. Moreover, the American Indians, who consider themselves the historical "guardians of the river," said they were not convinced that use of the treatment plant would protect water quality better than the current system of pumping and treating the contaminated water and trucking it to a disposal site.

The tribe also alleges that the utility and the state violated California environmental law by not exploring alternatives to building the treatment plant and declaring an emergency without substantiating the threat to public health and safety.

"The plume's been down there for 40 years, so what's the emergency?" Mojave attorney Courtney Coyle said. PG&E;, she argued, hurried to build the treatment plant because it wanted to stop paying about $1 million a month to haul away the contaminated water.

State regulators said they made a good-faith effort to keep the Mojave informed about the cleanup plans.

"We felt it was an emergency situation and continue to feel that way until this day," said Nancy Long, an attorney with Toxic Substances Control.

Indeed, regulators fear that a failure to quickly settle the tribe's lawsuit could seriously delay efforts to shield the Southland's water supply from chromium 6 contamination. Still, even if the plume reaches the Colorado, it's unclear how serious the threat would be to drinking water supplies once the chromium 6 is diluted by the river.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, confirmed that recent construction damaged a portion of the maze, but said that the treatment plant created only a "temporary visual impact" at the sacred site. The decision to place the plant near the Bat Cave Wash was "based on the best science we had," said Sally Murray, an archeologist with the bureau's Lake Havasu Field Office.

Such explanations provide little solace to the Mojave, who've struggled to maintain their way of life since the first Spanish explorers came to their desert valley four centuries ago.

On a recent trip to the maze, Felton Bricker, 68, a tribal elder and longtime activist on Native American issues, squinted against the late afternoon sun as he pointed out the PG&E; water treatment plant to a visitor.

"Where do we go from here?" he said. "Are we going to wander in limbo?"

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