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.

Navajo Nation leaders have finalized an agreement on spending priorities for more than $1 billion in federal recovery fund relief. The money will go a long way towards improving water, sanitation, housing and communication infrastructure on the Navajo Reservation. The Diné (Navajo People) hope the jobs the money creates will attract community members back who left to work off the reservation to support their families.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez signed the $1 Billion dollar agreement that was passed 20 to 2 by the Navajo Nation Council approving projects and residents across the Navajo reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The $1 billion in funding from President Biden’s infrastructure bill, the American Rescue Plan Act represents the largest investment in infrastructure development and improvements ever for the Navajo Nation from the federal government.

Moving forward, local politics, tribal laws and federal red tape could still keep utilities from getting to many homes across the reservation. Nez is advocating for an executive order from Biden to connect rural families more quickly as many levels of federal bureaucracy get in the way of connecting families to power.

All Tribal homes need to be considered an official homesite through the Navajo Land Department to be connected to the grid or get solar panels. It can take years to achieve a homesite designation with a lengthy process of approvals from families with grazing permits, sign offs from archaeologists, fish and wildlife services, environmental reviews, surveys and grazing officer clearances.  

“More water, electricity, broadband, housing and hardship assistance will be provided to elders, youth, veterans, students, families and others,” Nez said about the agreement. “Elders will get water lines, electricity, housing and other basic necessities – they are not left out.”

The Navajo Nation Council Resolution CJN-29-22 provides $215 million for water and waste-water projects, $97 million to extend electricity to homes, and $250 million on internet and housing projects. Another $210 million is set aside for local priorities determined by Navajo chapterhouse government units.

“There is no specific allocation for economic development in this particular bill, but our economy will get a boost through the creation of jobs and revenue from the infrastructure projects,” said Vice President Myron Lizer. “This is a step forward for the Navajo people and our quality of life in all communities.”

Additional aid for Tribal Nations will also be coming in from the  Infrastructure Bill, approved in November 2021, that set aside $20 billion for Tribal and Pueblo Nations. The Inflation Reduction Act that just passed through Congress includes $272.5 million to help tribes endure and adapt to climate change.

“Native communities have the technical expertise, capacity, and place-based knowledge needed to develop effective climate change and energy solutions,” Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz said.

Prior to approving the full spending plan the Navajo Nation Council held 26 work sessions to hear from local areas what was needed. Over 550 project proposals were received and vetted by the US Department of Justice to ensure compliance with federal guidelines. 

The pandemic disproportionately affected Tribal Nations and Pueblos and accentuated the disparities in access to running water, sewage systems and internet communications for classroom teaching that exists on Tribal lands. An estimated 14,000 Navajo families need basic electricity, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), which provides power to Navajo citizens across Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

“Elders never come into the chapter house to ask for money, but they ask for roads, electricity and running water,” said Pearl Yellowman, director of the Division of Community Development, “They still come for these basic needs. With these funds we will devote our time to getting our people cell towers, electricity, running water to bring their living standards to par with the rest of the world.”

The $272.5 million from the Inflation Reduction Act is appropriated as $150 million for Tribal home electrification, $75 million for loans to Tribes for energy development, $25 million for climate resilience funding to the Native Hawaiian community, $12.5 million to mitigate drought impacts for Tribal communities, $10 million for Tribal fish hatcheries., The Act also includes $20 billion in loan guarantees for Tribal energy development

“This is for all of the families that have to haul water and use generators, especially those who live in very remote areas. We are going to change lives forever beginning today. Lives will be forever changed because of this resolution.”  Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mark Freeland said.

Nez said he is confident these dollars will not only help those living on Navajo Nation but will also bring many citizens home.

“Once this bill is signed, we are going to need engineers, we will be able to bring back a lot of our carpenters, electricians, ironworkers home,” said Nez. “They’re building infrastructure for other governments and people. Now is the time to bring them home, embrace their expertise. “When we do that, our young people, our people that live off the Navajo Nation, will come home because there will be water, electricity, homes, available.”

While the billion dollars is a step towards satisfying treaty requirements with the Navajo Nation that have been ignored by the federal government for decades, much more support is needed.

“I’m grateful that this legislation went through, but we still need to do more for public health, health care and our elders,” said director for the Navajo Health Department, Dr. Jill Jim. “Our people shouldn’t be living in third-world conditions.