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Bureau of Indian Affairs opens new consultation on infrastructure

An aerial view of Cochiti Dam in New Mexico. The dam, located within the homelands of Cochiti Pueblo, is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Photo: Elizabeth Lockyear / USACE

As President Donald Trump pushes unwanted infrastructure projects on tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is moving forward with plans to improve aging dams and outdated irrigation systems.

The BIA has scheduled a series of consultations and meetings this month to ask tribes about two new funds. One would be used to improve safety of dams in Indian Country while the other would address maintenance of irrigation systems.

Both funds were created by Congress through S.612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act). The new law authorizes $33.75 million a year, for five years, for dam safety and another $35 million a year, also for five years, for irrigation.

Congress has yet to appropriate money for the funds but doing so would help the BIA address huge backlogs at more than 800 dams on tribal lands and at nearly 20 irrigation systems on and near reservations.

"The WIIN Act represents an opportunity, if Congress appropriates authorized funding, to complete repairs, replacements, improvements, and maintenance on Indian dams as expeditiously as possible," Mike Black, who is serving as the acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs while the Trump administration builds is new leadership team, wrote in a letter to tribal leaders.

"The funding authorized by the WIIN Act will allow for repairs, replacements, modernization, and maintenance on Indian irrigation projects," Black said in a second letter.

The effort comes amid a new focus in Washington on infrastructure. During his inaugural address on January 20, Trump vowed to put Americans back to work with all types of projects.

"We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation," Trump said.

Trump, however, hasn't mentioned whether Indian Country will be a part of those initiatives. Instead, he's pushing two controversial pipelines on tribes even though none of them want crude oil flowing through their homelands or the jobs supporters say the projects will generate.

But key lawmakers want to make sure tribes aren't left out. Infrastructure, economic development and jobs emerged as priorities as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held its first meeting of the 115th Congress on Monday.

"I hope that as any proposal ... moves forward, that we think about how we can use the opportunity to improve Indian Country infrastructure," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), a former chair of the committee.

The consultations on the WIIN Act begin on Monday, February 5. Five have been scheduled on dam safety and another three on irrigation. Additionally, the BIA will hold a public meeting, via telephone, on dam safety on February 14.

Written comments about both funds can be submitted through March 3. Trump is expected to announce his first budget sometime after that and it will be up to Congress to approve it.

Additional information about dam safety and irrigation, and how the BIA plans to implement the two new funds, can be found on the Division of Water and Power page.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter: Establishment of an Indian Dam Safety Maintenance Fund (January 27, 2017)
Dear Tribal Leader Letter: Establishment of an Indian Irrigation Fund (January 27, 2017)

Forthcoming Federal Register Notices:
Meetings: Water Infrastructure Improvements for Nation Act; Indian Dam Safety (To Be Published February 2, 2017)
Tribal Consultations: Water Infrastructure Improvements for Nation Act; Indian Dam Safety (To Be Published February 2, 2017)

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