The chair of a local Native American tribe was in Washington Tuesday to urge support for a bill Montana’s U. S. senators wrote to provide money for rural water projects.
“If I could leave the members of this committee with one impression, it would be for you to understand how difficult life is when you have no assurances that when you turn the water on in your house that water will in fact come out of the tap or be safe to drink, ” Bruce Sunchild Sr., council chair of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, said to the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sponsored a bill, sponsored a bill in July co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and seven other senators creating a fund for the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation to use to pay for rural water projects such as the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water Project now under construction.
The bill would take $80 million of federal oil and gas royalties and proceeds from sale of power from federal hydroelectric dams that goes into the reclamation fund — generally $1 billion to $2 billion a year — and put it into a fund for rural water projects.
The reclamation fund was established in 1902 along with the creation of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, to fund bureau projects and operation along with maintenance of its facilities.
Baucus invited Sunchild to testify about the the bill.
“City people, and even many folks in rural states, take for granted that when they move into a house they turn on the tap and there’s drinking water. But for many folks, especially in rural areas, that’s just not true, ” Baucus said during the committee hearing. “When there’s no municipal drinking water system, you get your water from wells — sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the water is contaminated. It’s unreliable, and there’s not enough good, clean water.
“We’ve got to get these rural water projects completed and the approach in this bill makes a lot of sense because the old way of doing things just hasn’t worked, ” he added.
The Rocky Boy’s/North Central system and the Fort Peck/Dry Prairie system near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are two of seven regional rural water projects serving people on and near Indian reservations Congress has authorized Reclamation to build.
The others will serve people in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico.
The Rocky Boy project has been progressing piecemeal with slow funding since Congress authorized $229 million for the project in 2002. Since then it has inched along, typically getting $5 million to $10 million per year in the first years — it was only $800,000 in one year — after it was authorized through earmarks made by the members of Montana’s congressional delegation.
The water authority typically asked for $42 million in each of those years.
The largest funding for the project came through 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided $20 million.
When completed, the system is expected to provide water for nearly 30,000 people throughout north-central Montana, including on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. The project grew out of the water compact Rocky Boy negotiated with the state and federal government in the 1990s.
The project includes a core system, which will provide treated water to the residents of the reservation, and connect a large portion of north-central Montana through a non-core system.
Rocky Boy’s Tribal Water Resource Department has accepted the operations and maintenance responsibilities for the core system.
Sunchild testified Tuesday that small, uncertain appropriations for the projects would cost the U. S. taxpayers an immense additional cost, while Baucus’ bill provides adequate funding for rural water projects up front and saves taxpayer dollars over the long run.
If the Rocky Boy’s/North Central project were funded at $35 million a year, it could be completed at a total cost of $418.6 million by 2021 — nearly double the original authorization — Sunchild testified. Funding the project at $15 million a year will cost about $647 million and wouldn’t allow the project to be completed until 2046 — costing taxpayers an extra $228 million over the estimated amount at $35 million a year.
That total would be $419 million more than the project estimate in 2002.
Sunchild cited the water problems following the two years of federal disaster-level floods at Rocky Boy as an example of the need for the water system. That flooding caused serious health problems for residents in addition to the usual naturally occurring high arsenic levels in the groundwater, he said. The health problems from the floods includw bacterial contamination that causes ulcers, severe gastric discomfort and can lead to stomach cancer.