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GAO Report: Irrigation projects not a priority at BIA

The irrigation program at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is riddled with management problems, suffers from lack of outreach and is faced with a $850 million maintenance backlog, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.

The BIA is charged with managing and maintaining 16 irrigation projects in seven western states. But the agency hasn't requested enough funds to reduce the backlog and doesn't have a plan to do anytime soon, the GAO said.

"BIA currently has no plans for how it will obtain funding to fix the deferred maintenance items, and obtaining this funding presents a significant challenge in times of tight budgets and competing priorities," the report, released on Monday, stated.

Beyond the budget, other serious problems plague the irrigation program, Congressional investigators said. The Bush administration's recent reorganization of the BIA, touted as a way to improve accountability and services, has placed inexperienced people in charge of water projects, GAO concluded.

As part of the reorganization, the people with the most expertise -- the irrigation staff -- were moved to the deputy director for trust services, a new position. But authority over water projects still lies with the regional director and the agency superintendent, whose project managers and staff lack the same qualifications as the irrigation staff.

"Under BIA's organizational structure, in many cases, officials with the authority to oversee project managers' decisionmaking lack the technical expertise needed to do so effectively, while the staff who do have the expertise lack the necessary authority," the report stated.

The realignment has had real, and negative, consequences, GAO discovered. On the Crow Reservation in Montana, a project manager with "insufficient expertise" decided to fix a minor leak, the report said.

But the manager made the problem worse by putting in a new structure that the irrigation staff later determined to be inadequate. Water delivery was delayed a month as a result.

In another Montana, a project manager and superintendent on the Blackfeet Reservation decided to go ahead with a short-term fix over the objections of the irrigation staff, who lack authority to make decisions. Six years after it first surfaced, the problem still hasn't been addressed adequately, the report stated.

Besides failing to include the irrigation experts, the BIA's management hasn't done a good job at consulting tribes, water users and non-Indian stakeholders, the report added. Only nine projects visited by the GAO, only two had regular meetings with tribes and individual water users.

But the BIA only holds periodic meetings -- or none at all, in some cases -- for the remaining projects. Even when meetings have been called, the agency has failed to show up. On some reservations, the BIA won't meet with non-Indians at all, prompting them to seek assistance from their Congressional delegation.

It was Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), the chairman of the Senate committee that handles Indian funding, who requested the report. Along Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Montana), Burns held a town hall in December 2003 to respond to complaints about the BIA's lack of public outreach. Both lawmakers, however, remain supportive of water projects on reservations in their state.

In order to address the BIA's long-standing problems, the GAO recommended that control over irrigation projects be turned over to tribes, other federal agencies or the water users themselves. "Given the multitude of responsibilities that BIA must balance, there are inherent limits on the resources and knowledge that BIA is able to devote to any one program," the report said.

"As a result of these limitations and competing demands, officials report that irrigation management is not a priority for BIA," it said.

Work on the report was completed last month. But neither the BIA nor the Interior Department responded to the recommendations or made any comments on the report.

Indian Irrigation Projects: Numerous Issues Need to Be Addressed to Improve Project Management and Financial Sustainability:
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