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A Day in The Life of Environmental Engineer Phoebe Suina

Phoebe Suina is the owner and project manager of her company, High Water Mark, LLC. Learn more about her environmental work with Indigenous communities and how you can #BeThatEngineer!
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We spoke with Phoebe Suina to learn about her environmental engineering work with Indigenous communities. Read her story below!

My grandfather was a lifelong learner. He’s one of my role models and taught me that even once you complete your degree, you are always going to keep learning. It’s a necessity to keep learning and to keep understanding how things change or evolve. He told me the history of the Cochiti Lake and the dam. Here in New Mexico at Cochiti Pueblo, we have a large dam that was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s and finalized in the early 1970s. They said we needed the dam for flood control along the Rio Grande River.

I’m from Cochiti Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo, which are two tribes along the Rio Grande. Our people have been here – they say a phrase – “since time immemorial.” It’s hard to say exactly how many years. I’m going to say thousands of years – not one, two, nor three thousand, but multiple thousands of years.

Over time, there was an ebb and flow of movement in this area. There were times when we were along the Rio Grande, and there were times when we were in the mountains. This ties back to the changes in climate and the resources that were within this area. Our people adapted. When the dam was excavated, they found evidence of Pueblo people here in Cochiti, similar to the recently studied footprints in the White Sands in Southern New Mexico. These footprints were identified as over 4,000 years old. We’ve been here for a very, very long time.

Here in Cochiti Pueblo, our people have dealt with climate change and shifts in the environment over history. We’ve learned to adapt. When the Federal Government said they needed to build a dam, they didn’t know exactly where they were going to put it. They decided to site the dam here in Cochiti. The dam is near a place where the river changes dramatically in terms of its natural features.

When they wanted to build the dam, they came to our Pueblo and our leadership. Our Pueblo has a very old internal, traditional governmental system. It’s composed of six main tribal leaders that change every year. Those six leaders that have served in the past become part of the tribal council for life. When the Army Corps of Engineers came, they went before the council and said they wanted to site the dam in Cochiti.

The Council said, “Absolutely not.” The Head of the Army Corps then came back and basically threatened, “If you do not agree to put the dam here, the Federal Government will condemn and use the eminent domain process to put the dam here.” The eminent domain process allows the government to use property for a public use, if there is payment to the people who own the private property. They were very forceful in this demand.

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Phoebe Suina, courtesy of The Texas Tribune.

We can’t really share with the outside world why the location for this dam was not appropriate. When we look at a project from a science perspective, we want to have the most data to inform the best decisions.

Our people have data that goes back thousands of years. Through our knowledge, our expertise, our history of this land, we’ve been here “since time immemorial.” Why would we not want to include and incorporate that expertise into decisions? At the time, in the 1940s and 1950s, the data that Western science had of this area was probably only decades old. They still chose to follow those minimal data points to say “This is the best place to put the dam.”

Our people said, “OK, fine. We’ll agree to this as long as you don’t disturb these particular areas we marked off.” The Army Corps of Engineers agreed. Yet, the first places they disturbed and blew up were those places the tribal leaders marked off.

As we are of this land here, we are charged with stewarding these places and making sure these places are taken care of. Not for us, living today, and not just for the Cochiti people, but for all the other Indigenous people in this Southwest area. I don’t know Cochiti without this large five-mile footprint on our reservation. I cannot look East today outside my window without seeing this large dam. I don’t know Cochiti without the dam.

Phoebe Suina’s Engineering Journey

Fast forward, I was born. As a kid, I loved water and I loved science. I always loved the outdoors, the rivers, and the streams. I loved to learn about the environment. When I went to college at Dartmouth College, 2,000 miles away from Cochiti, I went on an engineering scholarship. I didn’t know what I wanted to do coming out of high school. At the time, I didn’t even think about water.

I thought I was more interested in Chemical Engineering or Structural Engineering. As an Indigenous person from Cochiti and San Felipe, it was hard to go all the way out to Dartmouth. I learned about how much other Pueblos, tribes, and other Indigenous peoples lost in terms of their culture and language. It took going 2,000 miles away to understand what we have here in New Mexico, in our Pueblo communities.

In my sophomore year, I took a theory of calculus course. I struggled and thought, “Maybe I’m not supposed to be in science and maybe I’m not good at this.” It didn’t come easy to me. My brain was just not getting it. I was really down on myself and took a few terms off to do work in Cochiti. I participated in a language revitalization program in 1996. I wasn’t encouraged to speak my language, Keres, growing up, since I was encouraged to speak English.

The Lieutenant Governor came up to me and asked me to do this side project. After leading me into a room with a bunch of cardboard boxes covered in dust, he said, “I want you to learn about the Cochiti Lake and give a presentation to our community.”

As I was going through everything, I read through the resolutions, articles, and drawings. I read what the Army Corps of Engineers had told the Pueblo. I asked the governors if they knew what these engineering drawings were showing. They said, “No, we don’t know how to read engineering drawings.”

When you look at the engineering drawings, you can see the dam could not have been built without disturbing the area that the leadership said they wanted protected. There was no way. I showed the leadership and they realized that the Army Corps of Engineers had lied. That’s just the technical part, not including the economic development and policy. Eventually, in the 1980s, the Cochiti people ended up suing the Federal Government and the company that helped to build the dam. We won.

At that point, in learning what had happened from a technical standpoint, in re-engaging myself in the language and in our cultural, ceremonial ways, in learning about how important all of our environmental and cultural resources are to our people, the fire was relit in me. I knew then I needed to go back to Dartmouth to finish my degree because I wanted to have someone for our people, of our people, to be able to read engineering drawings and to be able to sit across the table and say, “No, what you’re saying is not accurate.”

I went back to Dartmouth, hunkered down, and got my Bachelor’s in Environmental Engineering and Master’s in Engineering Management degrees. When I went back to Dartmouth, I took a differential equations class. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to succeed, but I did well in the class! Differential equations is the application of the theories I had learned in my calculus class. It was the application of the theories that my brain was able to grasp.

Before I left, I also struggled in an electrical engineering course. It just wasn’t sticking for me. But when I got back, I took a class on hydraulic engineering, and I felt like a light bulb went off in my head. All the phenomena that you learn about in an electrical circuit, you can see in how water flows. I finally understood all the theories in electrical engineering because I could visualize water. Even though I struggled in one type of engineering, I found that hydraulic engineering, or the engineering of water, really clicked for me.

Here in New Mexico, I like to share with folks that from everything I’ve seen in my career, in this landscape, knowing what we know from our traditional side, our language, our stories of how we’ve been in this landscape “since time immemorial,” our people were the first scientists, hydrologists, architects, engineers, botanists, astronomers, and ecologists.

We have science in our DNA. That’s how we’ve adapted, been sustainable, and stayed resilient in this landscape. It will help us continue to steward our environment and our natural resources. I’m grateful that my “Aha!” moment happened before I went too far off the path. I saw we needed someone at the Pueblo to advocate and explain.

After graduate school, I worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I worked on all the post-fire response and recovery after the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, including tree thinning (to prevent future fires), fire road development, and some other emergency projects. In 2011, there was a major catastrophic fire called the Las Conchas Fire. It was the largest wildfire in New Mexico in terms of the environmental footprint.

At the time, my daughter was about a year-and-a-half old. I brought her to my parents to watch for the day. I remember we had just had a baptismal in the Pueblo and when I went back to garden at the house, tending to the plants, I looked up to the West and saw a little plume of smoke. It was so narrow. I got my daughter and went home. The next morning, I drove up to Los Alamos, and when I came back to Cochiti, it was engulfed in smoke.

I turned on the radio to listen to the news and they said the fire has grown to 40,000 acres. From my experience in working on fires, that didn’t make sense. They probably meant 4,000 acres, and even that would have been a big fire overnight. The tribal officials said it was really 40,000 acres. I knew I had to go back to work. I wanted to do everything I could to help. I wondered if my Pueblo, where my daughter is, needed help. I called home and no one picked up.

I left work to make sure my daughter and my community were OK. I offered my help to the governor, and they immediately said yes. I knew first, we had to address the fire. Second, we are going to have major post-fire flooding issues. I didn’t mean to scare anyone, but we really needed to get a handle on this.

It took a lot of work after the fire happened. I met with all the entities that focus on flooding, drainage, and environmental management in our country. I was walking in all our watersheds in Cochiti and knew we were going to have a flooding issue. Watersheds are places where all the water from rivers and streams drains off to.

The US Forest Service disagreed with me. They said they did preliminary studies, and said at most, there would be 2,000 cubic feet of water per second. I remember taking out a napkin, since it was all I had, and doing some calculations. I estimated 10,000 cubic feet per second. This would affect the Pueblo. I tried not to be disrespectful, but I tried to say they were wrong. Only my governors believed me.

Two years later, the company I worked for won a big contract and wanted me to lead it. We ended up seeing 20,000 cubic feet per second in one of our watersheds that normally has 20 cubic feet per second on a normal monsoonal event. I told my former bosses that I’ll work half-time on the new contract, since I didn’t want to leave Cochiti when monsoon season was about to start. They said no.

Phoebe Suina’s Entrepreneur Journey

Within a week, my co-founder and I had to figure out how to start a company so we could continue the work at Cochiti. We were able to find a name, file the paperwork through the governments, and got a lawyer to help us so we didn’t make a mistake. We started High Water Mark out of a need to continue the work that we were doing after the Las Conchas Fire.

We informed the Cochiti community on a Tuesday. On Thursday or Friday of that week, the whole middle Rio Grande valley flooded in a major rainstorm in 2013. A few months later, the whole state of New Mexico flooded. Both floods were Presidential disaster declarations. We had a lot of work for our various communities here in New Mexico to try to navigate all the resources to recover from those events.

Phoebe Suina and her team at High Water Mark
High Water Mark team, courtesy of High Water Mark, LCC.

My current job is owner of High Water Mark, LLC, which is an environmental and engineering firm. For me, it’s been important to develop an organization (in my case, a company) of folks that understand the complex, evolving situation of our environment.

Of the 13 people on our staff, 10 are Indigenous people with either engineering degrees or some type of science-based degree. We work a lot with tribes, non-tribal communities, states, and Federal entities on environmental and infrastructure projects.

One of our areas of expertise is addressing post-fire flooding. We help our communities navigate and actually get things implemented, instead of just talking about it. What I learned at Dartmouth in my master’s program was how to get a project implemented or how to be an entrepreneurial engineer. To do that, there are a lot of constraints and considerations, like funding, environmental or societal constraints, or legal constraints.

If those constraints and considerations are not incorporated through the design process, then it may not come to fruition. For example, you could design a system that costs $100 million for wastewater treatment. But when there’s only $1 million available to build it, this needs to be one of the constraints in the design.

For the Cochiti dam, was that area the best place to build it? There were cultural constraints for this design. It was implemented through the threat of eminent domain, but in the end, it wasn’t the best design because of the lack of consideration of the environment and of physical constraints. My company focuses on how we can help communities, our state, and the world expand and incorporate the input and considerations into good, sustainable, and resilient solutions for whatever concerns or problems we’re looking at.

You have to do something that you love, because there will be downs in anything that you do. There will be ups, but there will be downs. What I really like about the ups is knowing that what I am doing will be for what my children inherit. I look at the big picture of what I’m working on and remember my responsibility of stewarding our environment. I also feel good when I hear our elders talk about what they see as their responsibility in their time on this earth.

We’ve been helping with some of the recovery of mountain areas that have been devastated by multiple catastrophic fires. Part of our efforts was to engage non-profit organizations and governmental groups to plant Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir trees. One of the elders in the meeting said, “What we’re doing today is not for me, in planting these little, 18-inch saplings. We’re not doing it for all the people here today because these saplings won’t be able to produce what we need for our ceremonies until 60 to 100 years later. What we’re doing is for those yet to be born.”

Those are my highs, when our elders remind us of what we’re doing. I’m honored and blessed, always, when I’m in those situations. It reminds me that what I’m doing and trying to do is help future generations.

To girls interested in engineering and young women in the sciences, I would encourage you to continue and do what you like to do. When I was going through my program, I was the only one or one of a few women in my classes. It can be intimidating to navigate those situations. Follow your passion and what you feel good about. Just keep feeding the good side of that in your heart and your mind.

Even if it’s hard, just focus. Once you complete the classes and your program, nobody can take everything that you’ve gone through, everything that you’ve learned, away from you. Follow your passion. Follow your heart. Follow your mind. I tell my own daughter, who’s 12 and loves science, that yes, you may feel like it’s hard, but keep moving along. Especially if you put that hard work into it, it will mean that much more to you.


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