Technology for the Tribe

August 27, 2003
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How the Gila River Indian Community is preserving ancestral beginnings through a current irrigation project using GPS.



Survey Technician Martin Galvan, Survey Supervisor Carlos Encinas, RLS, and Crew Chief Anthony “Pike” Antone review the plan for the Southside Canal where a crew will perform as-built checks throughout the day.
“The history of the Pima Indians is most interesting. Their industry and thrift, their charity and their kindness to the white man and red man alike for a period as far back as we have any record in Arizona stands out in strong contrast when compared with the history of the treacherous hellhounds who comprise the major portion of this Nation’s wards. It is a crying shame that the opportunity to continue as a self-respecting, self-supporting race should be denied them.”

Excerpt from an article in the Tucson Citizen

“The Pimas and Maricopas have been, until recently, a self-sustaining nation. They raise their crops of grain and corn with a skill equal to that of the whites. The settlers, seeing the results which the Indians have produced… brought under cultivation much land in the valley of the Gila, adjacent to this reservation, and have built extensive canals… Under the provision of the United States law, all land bought under the desert land act, must be made productive by the application of water. In order to comply with the provisions of this law, the settlers were compelled to make diversions from the Gila River at points above the Indian reservation… These diversions by the whites quickly deprived the Indians of their water supply, and for the past five years they have been left on the desert without water for their crops and scarcely enough for their horses. They are put in the position of either having to steal, starve or be fed as public wards... Numerous court decisions have been rendered establishing beyond controversy the fact that the Indian has the prior and the better right to the water.”

Excerpt from an article in the Los Angeles Times

“For hundreds of years the Pimas lived in plenty, irrigating their fields from the waters of the Gila until the white man came and diverted its waters onto other areas. At the time of the Gadsden Purchase, Lieutenant Michler of the Boundary Commission said of these Indians in his official report, dated way back in 1856: ‘Besides being great warriors, they are good husbandmen and farmers and work laboriously in the field. They are owners of fine horses and mules, fat oxen and milk cows, pigs and poultry and are a wealthy class of Indians. The Pimas consider themselves regular descendants of the Aztecs. As we journeyed along the valley we found lands fenced and irrigated and rich lands of wheat ripening for the harvest, a view differing from anything we had seen since leaving the Atlantic States. They grow cotton, sugar, peas, wheat and corn. As I sat upon a rock,’ continues Lieutenant Michler, ‘admiring the scene, an old gray-headed Pima took pleasure in pointing out the extent of their domain. They are anxious to know if their rights and titles to their lands would be respected by our government, upon hearing that their country had become part of the United States.’”

Excerpt from an article in the Chicago Tribune

The excerpts printed here are all from newspaper articles published in 1900. Each refers to the then current state of the Akimel O’otham (River People), now known as the Pima Indian tribe, and the Pee Posh, known today as the Maricopa Indian tribe. The 103 years since those articles were written is but a short time in their storied history of innovative desert agriculture and the use of its precious water resources.

It is a story that begins almost 2,000 years ago when the ancestors of the Akimel O’otham were applying floodwater irrigation techniques to the Pimeria Alta region in what is now southwest Arizona, an area where many Jesuit missions were established in old northwestern New Spain. It is a story that continues today as the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project is bringing much more than just water back to their ancestral homeland.

Citrus, such as this orange grove, is one of the early and primary crops planned for the project. The Gila River Indian Community hopes to be the primary supplier of citrus and other fresh produce to the Phoenix and Tucson areas.
“The community certainly wants to restore its traditional agricultural economy,” says Carlos Encinas, RLS, surveying supervisor for the project. “But it also wants to prepare its people for the opportunities that learning new skills can bring. The irrigation project gives us multiple opportunities to develop management, administrative and many technical skills within the community, including surveying.”

The Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project is a federally funded restoration program for the Gila River Indian Community, a 583 square mile reservation that shares common borders of Phoenix and Chandler, Ariz., which is home to more than 29,000 tribal members. The history of the reservation, like many others, is full of promises, good intentions and the slow realization of correcting past wrongs. In this case, the wrong that is being made right is the return of ample amounts of water through a modern delivery system that will minimize attrition and maximize the yield of the community’s varied crops of forage, grains, vegetables and fruits.

The Gila River Indian Community reservation and its rivers, grasslands and washes.
When completed, more than 2,400 miles of surface and subterranean canals and laterals will have been constructed that will irrigate just more than 146,000 acres. This includes 82 miles of main canals (the focus of current construction), 242 miles of laterals, 380 miles of farm delivery canals and more than 1,700 miles of on-farm canals.

The placement and construction of the canals relies on Encinas’ three field surveying crews, each one anchored by a Gila River Community member as crew chief. “Two of my chiefs worked on survey crews for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The third was promoted based on his work as a crew member,” Encinas says. Each crew has one instrument man, two of whom are community members. Seven survey aides (equivalent to rod persons) and one intern complete the crews. The seven aides, five of which are Gila River Community members are currently circulated among the three crews, creating two four-person crews and one five-person crew. The intern floats between the crews when needed.

Donna Morago plants a guard stake at an alignment point surveyed by Kimpton “Kim” Pasqual. Both are Gila River community members.
“Surveying and building on Indian land has a unique set of problems,” Encinas says. “First, we have to make sure the proposed route of a canal in no way endangers any cultural artifacts. So the first thing we do is establish a line for the proposed canal, then call in the ‘archies’ (archeologists) who thoroughly check that area for artifacts or other valued cultural items. If the route is OK, we’re typically still waiting to begin the actual layout because much of the reservation was divided into very small allotments (usually 10 acres) by the U.S. government and given to individual tribal members many years ago. The tribe chooses to not use the process of condemnation, so much time is spent finding the rightful title holders in order to purchase the land or gain right of way through it,” Encinas says.

For the vast majority of the surveying and layout work, the crews use GPS RTK. “From time to time we’ll use a total station, but with the large areas we have to cover and with the relative lack of experience we initially had on the crews, GPS seemed [to be] the best option,” Encinas says.

It’s not unusual for the crew to stake alignments over six miles long. With conventional total stations, Encinas says an alignment that long could take two to three weeks to stake. “With GPS we do it in four to five days,” he reports. Given that they have more than 2,400 total miles to eventually lay out, productivity is a primary objective.”

The Gila River crews currently use Topcon GPS+ RTK systems (Topcon, Pleasanton, Calif.). Two rover systems are available, both configured with GPS and GLONASS capability. “Because almost all of our work is between two north-to-south mountain ranges, our east and west horizons are diminished,” Encinas says. “The additional GLONASS satellites have enabled us to keep working when we would not have had enough satellites from GPS alone.”

Encinas said that the RTK GPS systems provided an added advantage he had not considered—they allow his crews greater relief from the scorching desert sun. “Our Topcon system has very fast acquisition and it maintains tracking in virtually all conditions. This allows us to go from the truck, get the points and get back out of the heat faster than I thought possible. In an area where 120 degree air temperature is not unusual, that’s a big advantage,” Encinas says. But he said the thing that really makes him realize he made the right decision was just how easy the GPS system is to use. “In our situation, the key to productivity is learning… and learning fast. The combination of Topcon’s equipment and the excellent support supplied by their distributor, Holman’s (Albuquerque, N.M.), has made our crews productive almost from day one.”

“Our crews are being exposed to the leading edge of survey technology. Should our project become delayed, these people will have the skills and experience to quickly move into the private sector,” Encinas says.

To further expand their abilities and increase productivity, laptop computers running Land Development Desktop (Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif.) are available for each crew. “We can download data while we’re in the field, do a quick QC to spot any potential spikes and get the error corrected while we’re there,” Encinas says.

Crew Chiefs Neil Miguel and “Pike” Antone set up the Topcon GPS base station on a centrally located hilltop providing maximum communication range.
The construction phase of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project began in 1998. At the end of 2002, 15.23 miles of canal had been completed and 10.3 miles were under construction. Even though project completion is still more than 10 years away, Encinas, his crews and the entire Gila River Indian Community take great pride in what is already happening. In addition to crops of cotton, small grains, alfalfa, oranges and other citrus that are already being harvested, the community has also developed one of the largest olive tree groves in Arizona.

All told, crop acreage will rise from 30,000 acres before the project began to more than 146,000 acres at full buildout. But to Carlos Encinas and the entire Gila River Indian Community the true yield from the project is being measured in the skills and technological advancements that will still be paying benefits 103 years from now.

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