Camila Pendrosa, Cronkite News

Tribal official calls on Congress to fund ‘critical’ water infrastructure

An Arizona tribal leader told a House subcommittee Tuesday that tribes need more federal support to implement “critical” water infrastructure projects on their lands.

Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio told a House Transportation subcommittee that means more than just including infrastructure funding in the Water Resources Development Act of 2022, it also means ensuring that tribes get a fair shot at the federal infrastructure program. He said tribes have had trouble utilizing the money, if they knew it was available to them at all.

“The tribe was lucky to hear about the availability of funds for the EI (environmental infrastructure) program in the first place,” Yucupicio said of the Pascua Yaqui. “Since the program is not formally noticed to Indian tribes, more should be done to assist tribes.”

Yucupicio was one of several tribal and local witnesses outlining their water infrastructure needs to the Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment during its hearing on the biennial bill that funds everything from drinking water projects to harbor improvements across the country.

Yucupicio called for increased engagement by the Army Corps of Engineers with tribes, ensuring that tribes are notified of available funds ahead of deadlines and that the Corps counsels individual tribes interested in participating.

“It’s very critical all the tribes that live in the dry desert like we do … have that relationship” with the Army Corps, Yucupicio said.

That was echoed by Darrell Seki Sr., chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

“Congress should direct the Army Corps to hire a tribal liaison for each district to increase government-to-government consultation to ensure the tribal concerns are addressed in a timely manner,” Seki said.

Critics also said the cost-share provision – which requires grant recipients to put up 25% of a project’s cost to the federal government’s 75% – can be too steep for tribes. Yucupicio said the requirement should be updated to either allow tribes to use other federal funding to pay their share or be eliminated entirely.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, who asked Yucupicio to testify, agreed that the Corps “needs to be as flexible as possible” when negotiating payment.

“In addition to water infrastructure needs, they’ve got education needs, air quality needs, healthcare needs, just like anywhere else,” Stanton said of tribal governments. “So their budgets are already stretched pretty thin. We don’t want water infrastructure to be put at the bottom of the priority list.”

Stanton was the lead sponsor on a bipartisan bill in 2019, with four Arizona co-sponsors, that called for creation of a $150 million federal fund overseen by the Corps of Engineers and dedicated to water projects in Arizona. That bill later became part of the 2020 water resources bill.

Stanton said tribes are a vital part of the solution to the state’s ongoing water challenges.

“There’s no more important issue to our state than protecting our water resources. So this is not an option, we need them (tribes) to be successful,” he said.

Last year, the Pascua Yaqui got the first part of a $1.4 million award from the environmental infrastructure program for a pipeline to carry irrigation water to the tribe. The Army Corps is scheduled to release the second part of the grant to the tribe this year.

“We will save about 16 million gallons of potable water, which can be used to supply water for 375 homes on our reservation,” Yucupicio said. “That means a lot to our small tribe.”