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National water bill offers a bunch of goodies for Indian Country






Blackfeet Nation Chairman Harry Barnes, left, is seen with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Devon Energy Corporation President and CEO David Hager at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., on November 16, 2016. Photo by U.S. DOI

Congress wrapped up its work for the year by passing a national water bill that contains numerous benefits for Indian Country.

S.612, 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.

S.2717, 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 S.438, the Irrigation Rehabilitation and Renovation for Indian Tribal Governments and Their Economies Act, or IRRIGATE Act. 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.

H.R.387, 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 (R-California), one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in June 2015.

S.1822 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.

Finally, H.R.4685, the Tule River Indian Reservation Land Trust, Health, and Economic Development Act, places about 34 acres of Bureau of Land Management 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 June.

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 Indians 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 Man to five Pacific Northwest tribes.

Government Accountability Office Report -- Indian Irrigation Projects: Numerous Issues Need to Be Addressed to Improve Project Management and Financial Sustainability:
AbstractHighlights  | Full Report | Text-Only

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