Luján, Heinrich, Sinema Introduce Legislation to Support Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Projects in Tribal Communities

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Enhancement Act, a bill that authorizes $3 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS) to meet water and wastewater infrastructure needs identified in their most recent annual report to Congress and Deficiency List.Over 80 percent of these projects will directly benefit Native communities in the Navajo and Alaska regions. The bill also directs $350,000 to increase IHS staffing to expediently complete these projects.

“Prior to COVID-19, many Tribal Nations already struggled to access clean water – and the public health crisis has only exacerbated these longstanding inequities. Nationwide, Tribal communities often lack critical water and sanitation infrastructure, forcing residents to drive long distances for clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing or use alternative forms of hygiene and sanitation,” said Luján. “No country should stand by while its citizens are forced to rely on unsafe water or lack water entirely for their basic needs, especially during a pandemic when it is vital to abide by CDC handwashing guidance. The Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Enhancement Act will fund the backlog of necessary water infrastructure projects on Tribal lands and increase IHS funding and staffing to help get those projects past the finish line. I’ll continue fighting to bring additional infrastructure investments to Tribal communities in New Mexico and across the United States.”

“It is shameful that many Tribal communities, including in New Mexico, lack access to clean drinking water,” said Heinrich. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation that will direct investments in new water and wastewater service lines for tribal communities through the IHS Sanitation Facilities Construction (SFC) account. The federal government has a trust responsibility to invest in water infrastructure projects and fully fund the IHS project backlog so that Tribes can finally deliver clean water to all families in Indian Country.”

“The coronavirus pandemic showed the continued need for safe running water and adequate sanitation infrastructure in Tribal communities. Our bipartisan legislation ensures needed funding to increase access to reliable water systems for Tribal communities across our state,” said Sinema. 

The Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Enhancement Act is endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Health Board, Eight Northern Pueblos Council, Navajo Nation (Executive Branch), Santa Clara Pueblo, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

“The lack of access to water and basic sanitation has been a longstanding public health challenge for Tribal Nations and American Indian and Alaska Natives,” said Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians. “The Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Enhancement Act will help address existing sanitation deficiencies by funding the construction of safe water, wastewater, and solid waste systems in our communities.”

“While we have many competing interests for making our communities safe and healthy the “Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Enhancement Act” offers us great hope that Tribal communities will not be left behind in the work to rebuild our country but will be part of the collective response to raise our standard of living to the highest quality possible,” said the Honorable Wilfred Herrera Jr., Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

“In April 2020, the Navajo Nation sent a letter to House leadership asking Congress to take swift action to fund ‘essential water supply, sewage, and solid waste disposal facilities for American Indian and Alaska Native homes and communities and that doing so would help address basic human needs on the Navajo Reservation and in Indian Country and mitigate against potential illnesses such as COVID-19.’  Access to clean water is a daily challenge for many Navajo families and the pandemic magnified those needs. Thank you Senator Luján for introducing this timely measure and for your leadership in helping meet the needs of underserved American Indian and Alaska Native communities across the Country,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Background: In 2019, IHS’ Annual Report on Sanitation Deficiency Levels for Indian Homes and Communities identified nearly $2.6 billion in estimated costs for 1,563 water infrastructure projects to address existing drinking water and wastewater needs. Specifically, IHS determined that over 110,500 Native households need some form of sanitation facility improvement, over 51,700 are without access to adequate sanitation facilities, and over 6,600 are without access to a safe water supply system and/or sewage disposal system. More than 80 percent of the cost of the highest deficiency level projects per IHS’s sanitation deficiency database were located in the IHS Alaska and Navajo areas.

IHS has not released its 2020 report yet, but has already indicated that the cost to fund all needed projects will rise above $3 billion in fiscal year 2020. In a typical year, IHS is only able to invest $130 million to fund feasible water projects identified in the report to address existing water and wastewater needs. The Navajo Nation estimates that 30-40% of Navajo households lack access to basic water infrastructure. If funding is increased for IHS’s Sanitation Facilities Construction Program, the Navajo Nation and Pueblos will be major beneficiaries of the Program.



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