Tribal leaders urge House to extend funding for water settlements

Tohono O’odham Chairman Edward D. Manuel and other witnesses urged the House Natural Resources Committee to support a bill that would extend the life of a program that funds water rights projects for many tribes. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

Edward D. Manuel, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, said a lack of access to water has stunted his tribe’s crops and animals – along with any economic development opportunities. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Tohono O’odham Chairman Edward D. Manuel testified Thursday that lack of water has been killing crops and livestock – and, essentially, the tribe’s economy – and things will only get worse if federal funding is allowed to lapse.

That’s why Manuel joined officials from other tribes, utilities and advocacy groups to urge passage of a bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would make permanent a federal fund used to help the government meet its obligations under legal settlements over water-rights issues.

“If our settlement runs out of funding for delivery (of water), we could face the closure of tribal farms which we’ve invested millions of dollars, layoffs of tribal employees that work on the farms,” Manuel told the House Natural Resources Committee. “It will be critical to identify a stable, reliable source of funding.”

Critics on the committee said they don’t oppose the goal of the bill as much as its timing: The Reclamation Water Settlements Fund it would make permanent is currently set to get funding through 2029, with authority for the Treasury to spend money from it through 2034.

“It’s not that the issue is not significant, it’s what we are doing with this particular bill is gimmicky,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and the ranking Republican on the committee.

The fund was created in 2009 and gets up to $120 million a year that can be used by the Bureau of Reclamation to build or fix water infrastructure and to restore fish and wildlife habitat.

John E. Echohawk from the Native American Rights Fund has been involved in lawsuits against the government over its payments for Indian water rights since the organization began in 1970. He says tribal leaders are right to be worried about the federal government making good on its obligations.

“The biggest problem has always been trying to get the federal government to pay its fair share,” Echohawk said during a break in the hearing. “It’s this budget process up here and it’s really difficult to get funding for anything and you know all this competition and all these budget rules and everything.

“So it’s always a fight about where we get this money,” he said. Grijalva’s bill would mean tribes “don’t have to go through that fight. We don’t have to find those offsets.”

Grijalva said that’s why the bill is needed.

“Today many tribes in Indian Country live without water and basic water infrastructure,” Grijalva said. “The federal government, with its trust responsibility, is supposed to help ensure tribal water access.”

But Bishop said it is.

“I mean, it’s already authorized. We’re extending an authorization that’s going to last until 2029 already,” Bishop said of the water fund. “So why would we be actually trying to reauthorize a program that doesn’t go into effect yet and doesn’t expire until 11 years from now?”

Manuel said long-term assurances are needed because the process of winning a settlement from the government – much less collecting on it – can take years.

Manuel remembers living through that fight when the Tohono O’odham Nation was still establishing its settlement. He said drought forced his district alone to cut 100 ranching jobs after livestock deaths. He said the community depended on ranching jobs to keep the economy afloat.

“It was our way of life,” he said. “Without it we had nothing.”

The Tohono O’odham Nation straddles the border of Arizona and Mexico, covering miles of arid desert. It is a tough landscape to begin with, and centuries of drought and interference dried up wells, killed livestock and ruined the timber industry, Manuel said. The economy, and tribe members’ livelihoods, dwindled.

Nature was not the only challenge to the tribe’s water.

“Non-Indian mining, irrigation and municipal growth drastically undermined the nation’s use of its water rights,” Manuel said. “This damage worsened by inaction and mismanagement by the federal government as our trustee failed to provide our water rights.”

The problem was a long time coming, he said, and it will take a long time to fix.

“It took us all these years to get us settlement just on a small portion of our water,” Manuel said. “And our needs don’t stop existing after 2029.”