Infrastructure Bill to Help American Tribes with Water and Plumbing

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Donation of 5 gallon jugs of water, used for drinking and cooking, to Erland Suppah Jr.’s home on December 7 in Warm Springs, Oregon. The massive infrastructure bill signed earlier this year promises to bring change to some Native American tribes lacking clean water or indoor plumbing thanks to the largest injection of money in the Indian country. (AP Photo / Nathan Howard)

WARM SPRINGS, Ore. (AP) – 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 distribution center run by the Confederate Tribes in Warm Springs to their apartment for everything from drinking and cooking to cooking. brushing 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. 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 afield in the country, running water and indoor plumbing have never been a reality.

Now there is 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 Alaskan Indians, as well as sums of 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 U.S. government, which has a responsibility to tribes under treaties and other laws to ensure access to it. potable water. A list of sanitation gaps maintained by India’s 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 Alaskan 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.

Residents of these places carry water for basic tasks such as laundry 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 costs high.

“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.

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 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 and running water are at increased risk for respiratory, skin and digestive tract 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 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 what it would cost to run a water pipe from the nearest spring about 3 km 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 down as 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.”

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 of water – almost all of it donated – from a disused elementary school on the reserve. A constant flow of residents collect 600 gallons of water per day from the building. Old classrooms are overflowing with 5 gallon containers 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 tackle the 40- year-old sewage treatment plant.

“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 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.

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 in Colo. Who has worked on a 2020 report on hydraulic infrastructures. 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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