By Marc Lifsher
The Los Angeles Times
June 21, 2005 TOPOCK, Ariz. - 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
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
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
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
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
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?"