Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

COVID highlighted a century of federal indifference to fulfill its treaty responsibilities to Native tribes that left generations of Native American homes without running water. The pandemic showed D.C. needed to step up to the plate.

To strengthen Tribal sovereignty and advance Tribal self-determination, the Biden Administration recently restored the White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA) and in January 2022 issued a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding interagency coordination and collaboration for the protection of Tribal Treaty Rights.

The Biden Administration also issued a memorandum recognizing Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge as one of the important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the nation.

The Tribal Playbook, released in May by the Administration, is designed to help Tribal governments access more than $13 billion available Tribal funding from The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL).

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law appropriates $3.5 billion to the Indian Health Service to build the infrastructure needed to ensure a safe supply of drinking water, reliable sewage systems, solid waste disposal facilities and promote high-quality health care and disease prevention in Tribal communities.

In FY 2022 an estimated $700M will be shared with Tribal communities to improve Tribal water and sanitation systems. The EPA’s Office of Water will provide another $154 million this year to Tribes for water projects that replace lead pipes and address harmful pollution through its Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. To help coordinate these and other water and wastewater infrastructure funds, EPA has revitalized the Tribal Infrastructure Task Force (ITF) to develop and coordinate federal activities for tribal communities.

The  BIL funding through the Department of the Interior of $1.7 billion will fulfill Indian water rights settlements providing certainty as to the rights of all water users who are parties to the disputes.

Approximately $150 million will be invested into Dam Safety Programs in Tribal Communities over the next five years to address safety deficiencies.

Also included in the BIL through the Department of the Interior is $10 million for tribal water systems and another $10 million for irrigation and power on Native Lands.

These and other projects represent a start towards fulfilling a century of historically unresolved tribal water rights claims and underutilized water rights and provide clean drinking water for Native People.

“This investment will allow us to address challenges such as climate change and chemical contamination that impact the aging water systems of Indian Affairs,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

“We don’t know how these funds are going to be granted,” he said. “It will probably depend on who has the most shovel-ready project.”