Infrastructure bill includes funds for Alaska village water and sewer projects

Tribes nationwide will receive an infusion of federal money from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to expand broadband coverage, fix roads and address water and sanitation needs. The measure does not allocate funds to individual tribes on a per-capita basis as did the 2020 CARES Act or 2021 American Rescue Plan.

Much of the overall infrastructure funding will be distributed as competitive grants through federal agencies. Funds also will be directed to the states, with lawmakers making the decisions on which projects to undertake.

The legislation signed last week by President Joe Biden includes about $11 billion in benefits allocated for Indian Country, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. About one-third of that, $3.5 billion, will go to the Indian Health Service, the federal agency tasked with providing health care for more than 2 million Native American and Alaska Natives.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, based in Anchorage, is the largest Indian Health Service contractor in the state, serving almost 180,000 Alaska Natives. It is the largest tribal health organization in the country.

Much of the Indian Health Service funding in the bill will go toward water and sewer projects. The Alaska Tribal Health Compact is the federally authorized designee in the state for water and sewer projects in villages, many of which lack water and sanitation services.

Nationwide, the funding is enough to address more than 1,560 projects on the Indian Health Service list of water and sanitation deficiencies, estimated to cost nearly $2.6 billion. Projects in Alaska and the Southwest region that covers the Navajo Nation — where many tribal members live without running water and indoor plumbing — collectively have the largest price tags.

“In these and several other tribal communities, sanitation and clean water systems would never be built because the annual appropriations were insufficient to cover all the deficiencies,’’ the National Indian Health Board said Nov. 17.

About $2.5 billion will go to fulfill tribal water rights settlements that already have been approved. The Interior Department hasn’t specified which agreements that quantify tribes’ rights to water are included. But the leaders of the Navajo Nation, which extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona said they expect to benefit from the funding.

Heather Tanana, who is Navajo and an assistant law professor at the University of Utah, is part of a group that released a roadmap on Nov. 16 on how the federal government can move forward with the funding effectively. It includes coordination among federal agencies, working with tribes and through an existing tribal task force.

Tanana, the research lead for the Tribal Clean Water initiative, said the efforts should include building capacity for tribes to operate water and sanitation systems on their own.

“It’s critical to getting the money that Congress just appropriated on to the ground and into actual projects.’’

Building and improving upon water and sanitation systems will have a cascading effect in tribal communities and urban areas where most Native Americans live, improve health disparities and foster economic development, the National Indian Health Board said. The group also said the momentum should continue with Congress fully funding health care facilities serving Indigenous people as part of the federal government’s obligation to federally recognized tribes.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the funding is long overdue. “It’s been decades that we’ve been talking about eliminating the honey bucket and getting clean drinking water into communities, and sanitation systems,” she said, referring to lined buckets used to collect human waste in many isolated Alaska Native villages that lack indoor plumbing.

“A flush toilet is not too much to ask in this day and age,’’ Murkowski said.

Tribal leaders told the Biden administration during the virtual summit that they appreciated the money in the infrastructure bill but pointed out some potential hurdles, including for tribes that don’t have the resources to compete for grants or match the funding.

“Why can’t tribes just receive the funding?’’ said Janet Davis, chairwoman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada. “Why do we have to write grants to be able to use it, so we can use it for our communities to be safe?”

Navajo President Jonathan Nez suggested federal policies and regulations be eased or updated so projects won’t be stalled. He cited needing environmental clearances from two different federal agencies when a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs road or bridge is constructed on the reservation.

“A failure to clear out some of the burdens that prevent infrastructure investment will mean all our efforts to help pass the infrastructure bill may not lead to the progress we want for our people,’’ Nez said. “What’s the point of giving us money if regulations make it almost impossible to spend it?’’


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