Infrastructure Bill to Help American Tribes with Water and Plumbing

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

Each week, Suppah and his girlfriend transport half a dozen large jugs of water from a Confederate tribe-run distribution center in Warm Springs to their apartment for everything from drinking and cooking to cooking. the kitchen. brush their teeth for their family of five. It’s the only way they can feel safe after countless boil water advisories and weeks of downtime at a reserve struggling with burst pipes, failing pressure valves and a water treatment plant. water. geriatric water.

“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 tribal communities further in the country, running water and indoor plumbing have never been a reality.

There is now a silver lining in the form of a massive infrastructure bill signed last month that White House officials say represents the biggest injection of money in the Indian country. It includes $ 3.5 billion for the Federal Indian Health Service, which provides health care to more than 2 million Native Americans and Alaska, as well as money through other federal agencies for water supply projects.

Tribal leaders say the funding, while welcome, will not compensate for decades of neglect on the part of the US government, which has a responsibility to tribes under treaties and other laws to ensure access. potable water. A list of sanitation gaps maintained by the Indian health service includes more than 1,500 projects, including wells, septic tanks, water storage tanks and pipelines. Some projects would deal with the contamination of water by uranium or arsenic.

About 3,300 homes in more than 30 rural Alaska communities lack indoor plumbing, according to a 2020 report. On the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, about a third of the 175,000 residents lack running water.

The inhabitants of these places carry water for basic tasks such as washing and cooking, sometimes traveling long distances to reach communal water points. Instead of indoor bathrooms, many use outdoor toilets or lined buckets called “honey buckets” that they drag outside to empty. Some shower or do laundry at community sites called “laundromats,” but the equipment can be unreliable and expensive.

“You watch two billionaires compete to fly in space, but we are trying to get basic necessities from the villages of the interior of Alaska,” said PJ Simon, former president of a profit company. Native Alaskan nonprofit called Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Many other tribal communities have indoor plumbing, but woefully inadequate facilities and delivery systems riddled with aging pipes.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Indian country disproportionately, further underscored the sharp disparities in access to running water and sewage systems.

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

“During a global pandemic, we received a boil water advisory. How are we supposed to wash our hands? How are we supposed to sanitize our homes to sanitize, to keep members of our community safe? How can we do this… when our water is not even clean? Said Dorothea Thurby, who oversees the distribution of free water to tribe members and boxes of food to quarantined people.

A 2019 report by two nonprofit groups, US Water Alliance and Dig Deep, found that Native American homes are 19 times more likely than white households to lack full plumbing. And federal officials note that tribe members without an indoor toilet or running water are at increased risk of respiratory, skin and digestive infections.

In the Navajo Nation, Eloise Sullivan uses an outhouse and often drives before dawn to beat the crowds to a water fill station near the Arizona-Utah border to get water for the five people of. his home. . They use about 850 gallons (3,200 liters) per week, she estimated.

Sullivan, 56, isn’t afraid to carry water, but “for the younger generation it’s like, ‘Do we have to do this?’ “

“It’s kind of like a big deal for them,” she said.

She once asked local authorities how much it would cost to install a water pipe from the nearest spring about three kilometers away. She said she was told $ 25,000 and never sued.

Libby Washburn, President Joe Biden’s special assistant for Native American affairs, recently told the tribes that the infrastructure bill provides enough money to complete all of the projects on the Indian health services list. The agency said it is consulting with the tribes and will not make any award decisions until this process is complete.

So far, tribes and outside organizations have worked to meet needs with their own funding, donations, or federal money, including pandemic relief.

“If you live without running water you understand the importance and the connection you have to it, deep down as a person, as a human being,” said Burrell Jones, who sets up water supply systems. in water. supplies and distributes water around Dilkon, Arizona with the Dig Deep Navajo Water project. “You cannot exist without water.”

Andrew Marks recently returned to Tanana, a community of about 190 people in the interior of Alaska. He initially relied on a laundromat, but found the equipment unreliable. He now has running water and plumbing where he lives, but carries water for family members who don’t.

“I think if we had more people with water, more people connected to the grid, it would dramatically improve their lives,” he said.

In Oregon, tribal officials distributed about 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of water – almost all of it was donated – from a disused elementary school on the reserve. A constant flow of residents collect 600 gallons (2,270 liters) of water per day from the building. Old classrooms are full of 19-liter cans and cases of bottled water.

“The infrastructure bill made me happy because now it gives me hope – I hope it will be fixed,” said Dan Martinez, the tribal emergency manager, who expects to receive federal funds to replace underground pipes and repair 40-year-old sewage. herbal treatment.

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

Money will not bring immediate relief. The funding for the Indian Health Service is supposed to be spread over five years. There is no TBEN for its use, and projects will take a long time to get started. The money will not cover the operation and maintenance of the systems, a point the tribes have criticized.

In Warm Springs, tribal members do not pay for their water, and proposals to charge for it are deeply unpopular. This gives tribal members little incentive to conserve water and raises questions about how the new infrastructure will be maintained.

“There are 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 member of the tribe.

Building infrastructure in remote areas can also be expensive. Most of the roads in the Navajo Nation are unpaved and get muddy and deeply bumpy after heavy storms.

In Alaska, winter temperatures can drop well below freezing and construction seasons are short. Having enough people in a small community who are trained in the specifics of a water supply system to be able to maintain it can also be a challenge, said Kaitlin Mattos, assistant professor at Fort Lewis College at Colo. Who worked on a 2020 report on water infrastructure. in Alaska.

“Every part of the allocated funds is going to help a family, a household, which is wonderful,” she said. “I think that will be enough to help every household, remains to be seen. “

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

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