Funding for infrastructure should help tribal communities get more clean water

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Funding from the infrastructure law enacted last month is expected to help tribal communities obtain more clean water.

The law contains $ 3.5 billion for the Federal Indian Health Service, which provides health care to more than 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives. There is also money from other federal agencies for water projects.

About 3,300 homes in more than 30 rural Alaskan communities lack indoor plumbing, according to a 2020 report. In the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, about 33% of the 175,000 residents lack running water. .

In these communities, residents have to carry water, sometimes going to communal water stations, to use it for basic tasks, such as laundry and cooking. Many use outhouses or lined buckets called “honey buckets” that are emptied outside instead of inside bathrooms. Some people shower and do laundry in community places called “washeterias”, but the machines can be expensive and unreliable.

Many tribal communities have indoor plumbing but have inadequate plumbing and old piping systems.

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

Tribal leaders said the funding was welcome, but would not rectify decades of neglect on the part of the U.S. government, which is responsible for ensuring tribes’ access to clean water under treaties and other laws. India’s health service has a list of sanitation issues with more than 1,500 projects, such as wells, septic tanks, water storage tanks and pipelines. Some projects would repair water contaminated with uranium and arsenic.

Emergency management workers Perseus Bradley, right, and Waymon Harry, store pallets of water and other donated supplies on Monday, December 6, 2021 in Warm Springs, Oregon. The massive infrastructure bill signed earlier this year promises to bring change to many Native American tribes who lack clean water or indoor plumbing thanks to the largest injection of money in the Indian country.
Nathan Howard / AP Photo

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 disinfect our homes to disinfect, to keep members of our community safe? How can we do that … when our water isn’t even clean? ” said Dorothea Thurby, who oversees the distribution of free water to tribe members and boxes of food to those quarantined.

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 gastrointestinal 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 in her 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 two miles 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 provided enough money to complete all of the projects on the Indian health service list. The agency said it is consulting with the tribes and will not make any award decisions until this process is completed.

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 connection you have to it, deep within a person, as a human being,” said Burrell Jones, who sets up water systems. supplies and distributes water around Dilkon, Arizona with the Dig Deep Navajo Water Project. “You cannot exist without water.”

In Oregon, tribal officials distributed about 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of water – almost all of it 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 overflowing with 19 liter (5 gallon) 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 solve the 40-. one year old wastewater treatment plant.

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

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Funding of infrastructure, Indian county, access to drinking water
In some tribal communities, residents have to transport water, sometimes by car to communal water stations, to use for basic tasks, such as laundry and cooking. In this photo, Amanda Larson, who does not have running water in her home, carries water for her son Gary Jr. to take a bath in the COVID-affected town of Thoreau in the Navajo Nation, in New Mexico, May 22, 2020.
Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images
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