WASHINGTON (AP) – For more than a decade, residents of the Fort Apache rural reserve in eastern Arizona have been promised miles of pipes that will bring clean water to their communities.
Now a one-time windfall to help implement the deal could be on its way.
The federal infrastructure bill signed last month includes $ 2.5 billion for Native American water rights regulations, a tool tribes have used to define their rights to river water and d ‘other sources and secure federal funding to provide it to residents.
The federal government has not disclosed how the money will be distributed. But tribes involved in more than 30 settlements – many in the western United States, including the White Mountain Apache of the Fort Apache Reservation – are eligible and eagerly awaiting details.
“These are long-standing shortcomings in building infrastructure… to make sure the people of Indian country are not left behind,” said Heather Whiteman Runs Him, who is from the Crow Nation of Montana and runs the Tribal Justice Clinic at the University of Arizona.
Access to reliable drinking water and basic sanitation facilities on tribal lands remains a challenge for hundreds of thousands of people. Funding for the settlements is part of about $ 11 billion in the country’s infrastructure law aimed at expanding broadband coverage, repairing roads and meeting basic needs like running water.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes are entitled to as much water as they need to establish a permanent homeland, and those rights go back at least as long as a given reservation exists. As a result, tribal water rights are often higher than others in the West, where competition for the scarce resource is often fierce.
Litigation can be costly and lengthy, which is why many tribes have turned to settlements. Negotiations typically involve tribes, states, cities, private water users, local river basin districts and others and can take years, or even decades, to resolve.
“What makes this a complicated and often very slow process is that there are huge potential ramifications for how a tribal water right is quantified and developed,” said Richard “Jim” Palmer. , Attorney General of the White Mountain Apache Tribe from 2010 to 2018.
Almost 40 water rights agreements have been made with tribes, some of which include more than one tribe. The Home Office said 31 of the settlements are eligible for infrastructure bill funds.
“This money will really help us meet our end of the deal,” said Elizabeth Klein, senior advisor to the Home Secretary.
Congress approved the Apache colony of White Mountain in 2010. The tribe received more than a third of the water they claimed to be entitled to from two rivers that flow through the mountain reserve in return for the promise of federal money to deliver water to tribes. communities.
The tribe said they need federal funding for water storage, surface water treatment facilities and miles of piping so residents can have a reliable and clean source of drinking water. .
The projects were stuck, however, due to cost overruns and technical issues that took years to resolve and even more negotiations to secure additional funding, Palmer said. He added that this is typical of many tribal water rights settlements.
“It’s a situation to have a lot of money on paper, but it’s very, very difficult to access and implement… without a huge amount of paperwork getting in the way,” Palmer said, which is White Mountain Apache.
As a result, residents of the reserve still rely on over-pumped wells or consume water potentially contaminated with heavy metals, Palmer said.
Congress’ piecemeal approach to funding tribal water rights settlements is what makes the $ 2.5 billion in the infrastructure deal important, said Jay Weiner, lawyer and Native American legal expert. some water.
“It kind of blows the bridges over those annual funding cycles, so you have less competition for… limited dollars,” he said.
The Navajo Nation – the largest Native American reservation in the United States – has said it expects to receive infrastructure law funding for a 2020 settlement it reached with Utah for water in the upper Colorado River basin.
Congress authorized $ 210 million for water infrastructure and farm conservation projects to help bring running water to the Utah side of the reserve, but lawmakers failed to provide a full funding.
Meanwhile, residents and public health experts are concerned about the contamination of groundwater with uranium and arsenic. In the Utah part of the Navajo Nation, the tribe said hundreds of households – or about 40 percent of residents – lack running water or proper sanitation facilities.
The 27,000 square mile (70,000 square kilometers) reserve is larger than West Virginia and also extends as far as Arizona and New Mexico. The dwellings are scattered over the landscape, adding to the difficulties of transporting water.
Tribes say the faster they get the funding, the faster they can launch long-awaited projects to use the water they own on paper.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about allowing and facilitating the tribes to use their water, which is the point of the whole exercise,” Weiner said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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