FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Tribes have welcomed the injection of money into the massive infrastructure bill to expand broadband coverage, repair roads and meet water and sanitation needs, but they say that real change will only come with sustained investment.
President Joe Biden signed the $ 1.2 trillion deal earlier this week, which includes about $ 11 billion in benefits for the Indian country, according to the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. About a third of that amount, $ 3.5 billion, will go to the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing health care to more than 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
Funding is sufficient to address more than 1,560 projects on the agency’s list of water and sanitation deficiencies in 12 regions, estimated to cost nearly $ 2.6 billion. Projects in Alaska and the southwestern region that cover the Navajo Nation – where many of the tribe live without running water or indoor plumbing – collectively have the highest prices.
“In these communities and in several other tribal communities, sanitation and drinking water systems would never be built because annual funds were insufficient to cover all the gaps,” the National Indian Health Board said Wednesday.
Indian Health Service spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said the agency would soon consult with tribes to determine how to allocate the funding.
An additional $ 2.5 billion will go towards implementing the tribal water rights regulations that have already been approved. The Home Office did not specify which agreements quantifying tribal water rights are included. But leaders of the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, and the White Mountain Apache tribe in eastern Arizona have said they expected to benefit from the funding.
Heather Tanana, who is Navajo and an assistant professor of law at the University of Utah, is part of a group that on Tuesday released a roadmap on how the federal government can effectively advance funding. It includes coordination between federal agencies, working with tribes and through an existing tribal task force.
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Officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly referred to a “whole-of-government” approach this week at the White House Tribal Nations Summit when announcing agreements between federal agencies on the rights of tribal treaties and sacred sites.
Tanana, the research manager for the Tribal Clean Water initiative, said goals and accountability must also be part of the equation, along with building the capacity of tribes to operate their own water systems and d sanitation. The group of tribal members, water experts and nonprofits are pushing for access to clean drinking water for tribes in the Colorado River Basin and beyond.
âThe whole government shouldn’t just be a catchphrase,â Tanana said. “It is essential to get the money that Congress has just appropriated on the ground and in real projects.”
The construction and improvement of water supply and sanitation systems will have a cascading effect in the tribal communities and urban areas where most Native Americans live, improve health disparities and promote economic development, said the National Indian Health Board. The group also said momentum is expected to continue, with Congress fully funding health facilities serving Indigenous peoples as part of the federal government’s obligation to federally recognized tribes.
Colorado US Senator Michael Bennet, who co-sponsored a separate bill to improve water and sanitation systems in the Indian country, said:, Clean water. “
US Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said infrastructure funding is not without consequences, but is long overdue.
“We have been talking for decades about eliminating the honey bucket and bringing clean water to communities and sanitation systems,” she said, referring to the lined buckets used to collect. human waste in many remote Alaska Native villages that lack indoor plumbing. .
âA flush toilet isn’t too much to ask for these days,â Murkowski said.
Tribal leaders told the Biden administration at the virtual summit that they appreciate the money from the infrastructure bill, but highlighted some potential obstacles, especially for tribes who lack the resources to compete for grants or to match funding.
âWhy can’t the tribes just receive the funding? Said Janet Davis, president of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe in Nevada. “Why do we have to write grants to be able to use it, so that we can use it to keep our communities safe?” “
Navajo President Jonathan Nez has suggested federal policies and regulations be relaxed or updated so that projects don’t get stuck. He cited the need for environmental clearances from two different federal agencies when a road or bridge from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs is built on the reservation.
“If we fail to remove some of the burdens that prevent investment in infrastructure, all our efforts to help push through the infrastructure bill may not lead to the progress we want for our people,” said Nose. “What good is giving us money if the regulations make it almost impossible to spend it?” “
White Mountain Apache President Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said lasting differences will only come with sustained investment to make up for decades of underfunding and neglect.
“We hope this administration will continue to focus on critical needs and keep its footing on gas over the next fiscal years,” she said at the two-day summit that ended on Tuesday.
Biden administration officials said they would work to address tribal concerns.
Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska contributed to this story.