Mni Wiconi -- Water is Life. Photo: Joe Brusky

Congress sends bill with pro-tribal provisions to President Trump

Congress went on break last week but not before sending another pro-tribal bill to President Donald Trump.

S.3021, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA), cleared its final hurdle on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The 129-page package includes a number of provisions that will help tribes protect one of their most important resources.

“America’s Water Infrastructure Act will help facilitate critical water resources development projects in Indian Country," Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release. "These projects include improving aging irrigation systems, enhancing dam safety and flood protections, and helping ensure access to clean drinking water.”

“These projects fulfill important treaty and trust obligations to Indian tribes,” said Hoeven.

The bill, also known as the Water Resources Development Act, enjoyed bipartisan support. It passed the Senate by a vote of 99-1 last week and previously cleared the House by a voice vote in September.

Blackfeet Nation Chairman Harry Barnes, left, joins Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in signing a water rights compact at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2018. Photo: U.S. DOI

"Water is life," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), another member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release touting a provision that benefits the Blackfeet Nation.

In 2016, the tribe secured final approval of a water settlement with the state of Montana and the federal government. The provision in America’s Water Infrastructure Act allows the tribe to tap into the $422 settlement fund in order to start work on key infrastructure projects as soon as possible.

S.3021 was presented to Trump for his signature on Friday. Though it is not a strictly Indian bill, it marks the eighth pro-tribal measure that Congress has sent to the president since January 2017.

"I look forward to President Trump signing it into law soon," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), who cited provisions that will help tribes protect their water resources and address the costs of water studies and projects.

Among other provisions, the bill reauthorizes the Indian Irrigation Fund through 2028 and the Indian Dam Safety Fund through 2030. It also increases funding levels for the Tribal Partnership Program so that tribes can work more closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on projects in their communities.

The bill also authorizes $20 million a year, from 2019 through 2022, for a new Indian Reservation Drinking Water Program at the Environmental Protection Agency. The funding will enable tribes in the Upper Missouri River Basin and in the Upper Rio Grande Basin to improve drinking water systems and wastewater on their reservations.

"I’m particularly pleased that we were able to secure provisions that prioritize the water needs of rural, tribal, and low-income communities," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) said in a press release.

The Lone Pine In-lieu Site is one of 31 sites along the Columbia River where tribal members endure substandard conditions. Photo from Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Another provision benefits tribes with treaty rights along the Columbia River. It requires the Department of Interior and the Army Corps to move forward on new housing projects for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Yakama Nation.

"The tribal community – governments and citizens – have continued work on the creation of an intertribal housing authority in anticipation of a fully resumed housing collaboration," the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said in a statement on the bill.

The tribes lost prime fishing, gathering and housing sites in Washington and Oregon to the construction of dams along the Columbia River between the 1930s through the 1970s. Although the federal government promised to build replacements, tribal citizens are still living in substandard conditions, with limited electricity and inadequate water supplies.

The 115th Congress
Since the start of the 115th Congress, lawmakers have sent seven tribal-specific bills to President Donald Trump. He has signed all of them into law:

H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act. The new law makes an Indian Country job program permanent. It was signed on December 18, 2017.

H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. The new law helps the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the Coquille Tribe with issues affecting their homelands. It was signed on January 8, 2018.

H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. The new law extends federal recognition to the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Tribe - Eastern Division, the Monacan Nation, the Nansemond Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe and the Upper Mattaponi Tribe. It was signed on January 29.

S.772, the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. The new law makes tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants for the first time. It was signed on April 13.

S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act. The bill helps the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians improve their economies by resolving land and leasing issues. It was signed on June 1.

S.2850, a bill to help the White Mountain Apache Tribe with a critical drinking water project in Arizona and two Pueblo tribes with economic development efforts in New Mexico. It was signed on August 1.

H.R.6124, the Tribal Social Security Fairness Act. The new law authorizes the Social Security Administration to enter into government-to-government agreements with tribes so that tribal officials have the option of paying into and receiving Social Security benefits -- a privilege already extended to state and local governments. It was signed on September 20.

Lawmakers are in recess until the November 6 election. Once they return, they will have only several more weeks to take action on other Indian Country bills before the 115th session of Congress concludes at the end of the year.

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