Infrastructure Bill to Support US Tribes with Water and Plumbing

WARM SPRINGS, Ore. (AP) – Erland Suppah Jr. doesn’t trust what comes out of his tap.

Each week, Suppah and his girlfriend haul half a dozen large jugs of water from a Confederate Tribal Distribution Center in Warm Springs to their home for everything from drinking to cooking to brushing teeth for their family of five. This is the only way to feel safe after countless reports of boiling water and weeks of barriers in a reserve that is struggling with burst pipes, defective pressure valves and a geriatric water treatment system.

“The only thing this water is good for is cleaning my floor and flushing the toilet,” Suppah said of the tap water in the community 100 miles southeast of Portland. “That’s it.”

In other, more remote tribal communities across the country, running water and indoor plumbing have never been a reality.

Now there is a glimmer of hope in the form of a massive infrastructure bill signed last month that White House officials say will be the largest single injection of money into the Indian country. That includes $ 3.5 billion for the Indian Federal Health Service, which provides health care to more than 2 million Alaskan Indians and Native Americans, as well as cash pots from other federal agencies for water projects.

Tribal leaders say funding is welcome, but it won’t make up for decades of neglect by the U.S. government that treaties and other laws require tribes to provide access to clean water. A list of sanitary deficiencies kept by the Indian Health Service includes more than 1,500 projects, including wells, sewage treatment plants, water tanks and pipelines. Some projects would address uranium or arsenic pollution.

According to a 2020 report, approximately 3,300 homes in more than 30 rural Alaskan communities are lacking plumbing. The largest Native American reservation on the Navajo Nation, about a third of the 175,000 residents live without running water.

The residents of these places haul water for basic chores such as washing and cooking, and sometimes travel long distances to reach communal water stations. Instead of indoor bathrooms, many use pit toilets or lined buckets called “honey buckets” that they haul outside to empty. Some shower or wash at communal locations known as “laundromats,” but equipment can be unreliable and fees expensive.

“You’re looking at two billionaires competing to go into space, but we’re trying to meet basic needs in the villages of interior Alaska,” said PJ Simon, a former chairman of an Alaska Natives nonprofit called Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Many more tribal communities have indoor plumbing, but pitifully inadequate facilities and utilities with aging pipes running through them.

The coronavirus pandemic, which hit Indian Country disproportionately, has further underscored the stark differences in access to running water and sewer systems.

In Warm Springs, the water crisis has overlapped with COVID-19.

“During a global pandemic, we had a message about boiling water. How should we wash our hands? How should we sanitize our homes to keep our community members safe? How can we do that … if our water isn’t even clean? ”Said Dorothea Thurby, who oversees the distribution of free water to tribal members and food boxes to those who are in quarantine.

A 2019 report by two nonprofit groups, US Water Alliance and Dig Deep, found that Native Americans are 19 times more likely to have a full pipeline than white households. And federal officials note that without indoor toilets or running water, tribal members are at increased risk for respiratory, skin, and gastrointestinal infections.

In the Navajo Nation, Eloise Sullivan uses an outhouse and often drives before sunrise to beat the crowd at a water station near the Arizona-Utah border to get water for the five people in her household. She estimates they use about 850 gallons (3,200 liters) per week.

Sullivan, 56, doesn’t mind hauling water, but “for the younger generation it’s like, ‘Do we have to do this?'”

“It’s a big problem for her,” she said.

She once asked local officials what it would cost to run a water pipe from the nearest spring about two miles away. She said she was told $ 25,000 and never tracked it.

Libby Washburn, President Joe Biden’s Special Assistant on Native American Affairs, recently announced to the tribes that the Infrastructure Bill contains enough money to complete all projects on the Indian Health Service’s list. The agency said it is consulting with the tribes and will not make any allocation decisions until this process is complete.

So far, tribes and outside organizations have worked through their own funds, donations, or federal funds to meet the need, including helping with pandemics.

“When you live without running water, you understand the meaning and connection you have deep inside as a person, as a person,” said Burrell Jones, who builds water systems and supplies water around Dilkon, Ariz., The Navajo Water Project from The Navajo Water Project Dig Deep. “You cannot exist without water.”

Andrew Marks recently moved to Tanana, a community of about 190 people in inland Alaska. He initially relied on a car wash, but found the equipment unreliable. He now has running water and a water pipe where he lives, but he carries water for family members who do not.

“I think if we had more people with water and more people with electricity it would make their lives a lot better,” he said.

In Oregon, tribal officials distributed approximately 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of water – almost all of it donated – from a disused elementary school on the reservation. A steady stream of residents brings together 600 gallons (2,270 liters) of water from the building every day. Former classrooms are overflowing with 19-liter, five-gallon containers and crates of water bottles.

“I enjoyed the Infrastructure Act because now it gives me hope – hope it will be fixed,” said Dan Martinez, the tribes emergency manager who expects to receive federal funding to replace underground lines and the 40 year old old sewage treatment plant.

“If one day you came to work and someone said, ‘Hey, you need to find water for a community of 6,000 people.’ … I mean, where do you start? ‘”

The money will not provide immediate relief. Funding for the Indian health service is to be spread over five years. There is no deadline to use and projects will take time to complete once they start. The money won’t cover the operation and maintenance of the systems, a point the Tribes have criticized.

In Warm Springs, tribesmen do not pay for their water, and proposals to charge for it have been extremely unpopular. This offers little incentive for tribesmen to conserve water and raises questions about how to maintain new infrastructure.

“There are some natives who say – and I believe it myself – ‘How do you sell something that you have never owned? The Creator gave it to us, ‘”said Martinez, a tribe member.

Expanding infrastructure in remote areas can also be arduous. Most of the Navajo Nation’s roads are unpaved and are muddy and deep ridden after major storms.

In Alaska, winter temperatures can drop well below zero and the construction season is short. It can also be challenging to have enough people in a small community trained in the ins and outs of a water system to maintain it, said Kaitlin Mattos, assistant professor at Fort Lewis College, Colorado, who worked on a report on water infrastructure worked in Alaska for 2020.

“Every bit of money that is allocated will help a family, a household, which is wonderful,” she said. “Whether it is enough to help every single household, I think, remains to be seen.”


Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Bohrer reported from Juneau, Alaska.

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