Deb Haaland touts infrastructure money for tribal water rights settlements

By: - February 22, 2022 3:57 pm

Sec. Deb Haaland poses for a picture with Jr. Miss Gila River Sineca Jackson during her visit to the Gila River Indian Community on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo Credit: Gila River Indian News

During her visit to Arizona, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the agency’s plan to fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims using money from the infrastructure spending plan that President Joe Biden signed into law last year.

“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of Tribal communities,” Haaland said in a press release.

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The infrastructure law invests more than $13 billion into tribal communities, according to the Interior, and this includes a $2.5 billion investment to implement the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund, which will help deliver long-promised water resources to tribes.

“With this crucial funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Interior Department will be able to uphold our trust responsibilities and ensure that Tribal communities receive the water resources they have long been promised,” Haaland said. 

Following feedback from tribal consultations, the agency said it will allocate $1.7 billion of the funding this year to enacted settlements that have outstanding federal payments necessary to complete their terms.

“I am grateful that Tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed,” Haaland said.

For Arizona, the Department of Interior allotted $224 million for building out the infrastructure needed for the Southern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement, according to U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly’s office. 

This settlement includes the Tohono O’odham Nation, completing the Gila River Indian Community Water Rights Settlement and funding the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Water Rights Settlement.

“Securing Arizona’s water future means ensuring the federal government follows through on its commitment to our tribal communities,” Kelly said in a statement. “It’s why I worked on the bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fully fund Arizona tribal water settlements, which will benefit our entire state’s water supply while also completing water infrastructure projects needed for tribal communities to access clean, reliable drinking water now and for generations to come.” 

“Our bipartisan infrastructure law directly invests in tribes’ economic and water security by fully funding Indian Water Rights Settlements in Arizona and across the country,” U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in a press release. “Our historic investments will strengthen water systems, update critical infrastructure, and create jobs.”

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said that “settling Indian water rights claims is a priority for the State of Arizona. The funding announced today is critical to fulfilling the obligations in tribal water rights settlements to provide water and economic opportunity to Tribes in our state.”

In a press release, the Department of Interior stated that, by using investments made by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund and funds available from the existing Reclamation Water Settlement Fund, several tribes and settlements  will receive funding this year.

Those tribes and settlements include: Aamodt Litigation Settlement (Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque), Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, San Carlos Apache Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation, and White Mountain Apache Tribe.

The Reclamation Water Settlement Fund was created by Congress in 2009 and receives $120 million in mandatory funding annually from 2020 through 2029, according to the Department of Interior. There are 34 congressionally enacted Indian Water Rights settlements as of November 2021.

Sec. Deb Haaland poses for a picture with Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis during her visit to the community and Arizona on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo Credit: Gila River Indian News

The department’s funding announcement came after Haaland’s visit to the Gila River Indian Community with members of the Arizona Congressional Delegation on Tuesday.

The trip included a tour of the communities water conservation efforts, as well as informing the tribe they will receive $92 million in infrastructure funding for water projects. 

“The water rights funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Funding is historic and will have an immediate impact in the Community by accelerating irrigation projects that will create approximately 200 jobs,” Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis said in a written statement.

The allocation of $92 million will allow the tribal community to accelerate projects related to the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, according to a press release, this includes the installation of up to 15 new wells to allow water conservation aimed at shoring up Lake Mead during the ongoing megadrought.

As part of the tour, Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis took Haaland and the Arizona congressional delegation on a tour of MAR-5, a managed aquifer recharge site. The site came together as part of the tribe’s drought response efforts between 2015 and 2018.

In a press release, Lewis described the site as a site of great cultural significance and “a place that honors our past, sustains us in the present, and will leave a better future for  generations to come.” Haaland commended the community for its leadership in the area of water conservation. 

Lewis continued the tour with a stop at Canal 13, which is a direct result of the water settlement completion fund included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to the Tribe. But even before the measure was enacted, GRIC moved forward with the project in the design and land acquisition, all in anticipation of Congress passing the infrastructure legislation.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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