Is Obama Ready to Help Thirsty Tribes?

By: Hazel Ocampo | Attorney | hazel.ocampo@procopio.com
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner | ted.griswold@procopio.com

Last week, President Obama and Vice President Biden met with the leaders of 566 federally recognized Tribal Governments to discuss important topics affecting Tribal Nations, during the Tribal Nations Conference. Environmental and natural resources will figure prominently in the discussion. Topics will include the availability of technical assistance for tribal renewable energy projects, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) distribution of $29M to initiate the construction of US infrastructure for 77 wastewater projects and $18M for the construction of drinking water infrastructure projects.

The Conference dovetails with the recent EPA announcement of $43M in funding for environmental projects on Native American grounds in the Southwest. The EPA Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, Jared Blumenfield noted that 44 tribes in California are in danger of running out of water. He singled out California Native American communities as being particularly at-risk in the multi-year drought the State is presently facing.

The funding will assist tribal environmental programs and water quality projects, including watershed protection and restoration, water and energy efficiency, and wastewater reclamation. It will also fund the cleanup of open dumps, small construction projects, community outreach, drought mitigation and community education.

Of the $43M, the EPA allocated $18.8M to California–$5.4M to Northern California Tribes, $7.8M to Central California Tribes and $5.6M to Southern California Tribes. The remaining $24.2M went to Tribes in Arizona and Nevada.

Projects available for funding include the Hoopa Valley Tribe partnership with the California Indian Health Service, to install a greywater system to serve two homes as part of a wastewater project that also connects the homes to the sewer collection system. Thus, demonstrating that even a small project can make a significant difference in a small tribal community.

The EPA funding acknowledges the dire need for safe drinking water on tribal lands. Most California Tribes are rural and do not benefit from significant public projects which import water to municipalities buffering the effects of the existing drought. Drought conditions threaten the availability of sufficient water resources for many tribal communities, making funding for water projects essential.

While the EPA funding is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the need for safe drinking water resources for tribal communities. Funding is just one tool to realize that goal. It will be critical to send a unified message highlighting the need for water resources while Tribal nations have the President’s ear during the Tribal Nations Conference. The existence of sufficient water resources for tribes is an issue worthy of national prominence, which simply cannot be ignored.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at ted.griswold@procopio.com and 619.515.3277.