By Debra Utacia Krol
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland laid out plans Tuesday for using infrastructure money to fund Indian water rights settlements, including several in Arizona.
Haaland met with Arizona tribal leaders Monday and visited the Gila River Indian Community Tuesday morning. She is expected to formally discuss the plan and other funding to address water infrastructure and drought resilience in Arizona Tuesday afternoon with other federal and state officials.
In a statement, Haaland said tribes across the United States would receive $2.5 billion to fund Indian water rights settlements, with the first $1.7 billion being allocated in 2022 to finalize settlements with existing federal obligations. The funding applies to settlements enacted by Congress as of Nov. 15, when President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Several tribes in Arizona have long had to deal with inadequate water supplies, tainted waters from uranium or arsenic, and outdated sanitation systems. The White Mountain Apache Tribe has waited about 40 years to build a new water system, while an estimated 30 to 40% of Navajo homes lack running water.
Nationwide, reports estimate that about 48% of homes in tribal lands lack access to clean drinking water, reliable water sources or adequate sanitation. The Indian Health Service, one of the other principal agency water project funders, had a $3.1 billion backlog in fulfilling water projects in 2021, according to backers of a bill proposed by Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. The measure would provide about $6.7 billion for water infrastructure projects.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
The funds are part of a more than $13 billion appropriation to tribes from the infrastructure law for new projects ranging from road construction, drought resiliency, natural resource management and building out broadband internet, along with efforts to provide drinking water and sanitation projects for tribal communities.
The statement also said tribes would be eligible for more funding for what the Interior Department called “much-needed investments” in tribal communities and economies.
Officials said $224 million would come to Arizona to implement water infrastructure projects resulting from settlements for the Gila River Indian Community, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Haaland also said the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project would receive funding.
“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of tribal communities,” Haaland said in the statement.
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She said the infrastructure act funding would enable the Interior department to uphold its trust responsibilities to tribes and deliver water resources to tribal communities: “I am grateful that tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed.”
Arizona’s two senators, who have strongly supported projects from the infrastructure bill, released statements about the tribal funding.
“Our bipartisan infrastructure law directly invests in tribes’ economic and water security by fully funding Indian water rights settlements in Arizona and across the country. Our historic investments will strengthen water systems, update critical infrastructure and create jobs,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, co-author and negotiator of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs law.
Sen. Mark Kelly, who also worked to shape the tribal water settlement provisions in the infrastructure act, said: “Securing Arizona’s water future means ensuring the federal government follows through on its commitment to our tribal communities. It’s why I worked in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fully fund Arizona tribal water settlements, which will benefit our entire state’s water supply while also completing water infrastructure projects needed for tribal communities to access clean, reliable drinking water now and for generations to come.”
Haaland met with tribal leaders and Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., Monday at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona’s office in Phoenix to discuss how the infrastructure act would deliver funding to tribes. Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis posted a recap of the meeting on his Facebook page:
Haaland also announced a new Indian Water Rights Settlement completion fund committee. Members will include the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, assistant secretaries of water and science and Indian Affairs and the Interior Department solicitor, as well as other officials. The committee will recommend future allocations of the completion fund to Haaland.