Congress wrapped up its work for the year by passing a national water bill that contains numerous benefits for Indian Country.
, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, includes at least 10 separate Indian bills. There's one repatriation provision
, two major infrastructure packages, three land-into-trust acquisitions and four water settlements
in the 277-page measure.
"Congress has taken major action on behalf of tribal communities,” Sen. John Barrasso
(R-Wyoming), the outgoing chairman
of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
, said in a press release
Barrasso's committee advanced many of the individual components of S.612 during its ever-busy schedule these past two years. Some also saw action in the House
But putting all of them into one must-pass package ensures success now that lawmakers have gone home for the year.
S.612, also known as the WIIN Act, is awaiting signature from President Barack Obama
"These measures will help protect Native and surrounding communities from flooding, improve aging irrigation systems, clarify water rights, take land into trust for tribes, and protect and improve lives across Indian Country. I urge the president to sign this bill into law," Barrasso said.
Two of Barrasso's more ambitious infrastructure initiatives are among those included in S.612. Dams and irrigation systems in Indian Country will finally see long-overdue attention if the bill becomes law.
, the Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act (DRIFT ACT), authorizes at least $229.25 million over six fiscal years to fix aging dams on and near reservations. The amount is not enough to fully clear the $500 million backlog that has amassed at the Bureau of Indian Affairs
but it brings significant resources to a problem that affects more than 800 dams
across tribal lands.
The second Indian infrastructure bill is
the Irrigation Rehabilitation and Renovation for Indian Tribal Governments and
Their Economies Act, or IRRIGATE
. It authorizes at least $175 million over five fiscal years to fix and maintain irrigation systems in Indian Country.
Again the amount isn't enough to fully address what the Government Accountability Office
in 2006 said was a backlog of $850 million. But it's the first time Congress has taken a comprehensive approach to the issue.
Also included in S.612 are three land-into-trust bills. Tribes have been increasingly approaching Congress to help them with acquisitions and transfers that might otherwise take years through other means.
, the Economic Development Through Tribal Land Exchange Act, resolves a long-running land dispute in southern California. It authorizes a land swap between the Morongo Band of Mission Indians
and a private citizen and places 41 acres in trust for the tribe.
"It actually makes all the parties happy," Rep. Paul Cook
one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in June 2015
benefits the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians
, also in California. It places about 80 acres of U.S. Forest Service
property in trust for the tribe.
"The parcels are located in an area of great cultural and historical significance to the tribe and are contiguous to lands the tribe currently owns in fee simple, known simply as the Murphy Ranch," Rep. Jim Costa
(D-California), one of the co-sponsors of H.R.3079
, an identical version of the bill, said in July
the Tule River Indian Reservation Land Trust, Health, and Economic Development
Act, places about 34 acres of Bureau of
property in trust for the Tule River Tribe
in California. The
land will help the tribe consolidate its holdings.
"Although this may not seem like a lot of land, every acre of land is important to our tribe," Vice Chairman Kenneth McDarment told the House
Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs
In addition to the infrastructure and land-into-trust components, S.612 ratifies water settlements for the Blackfeet Nation
in Montana, the
Pechanga Band of Luiseno
in California and the Chickasaw Nation
and the Choctaw Nation
in Oklahoma. It also updates a previously approved settlement for five tribes in southern California
The other significant Indian provision in the WIIN Act is S.1979
, the Bring the Ancient One Home Act. The bill returns the remains of the Kennewick
to five Pacific Northwest tribes.
Government Accountability Office Report -- Indian Irrigation Projects: Numerous
Issues Need to Be Addressed to Improve Project Management and Financial
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