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Tester Delves Into Budget Shortfalls Plaguing Tribal Irrigation Programs

Senator Jon Tester, Chairman of the SCIA, on September 10 examined the state of crumbling irrigation infrastructure in Indian country.
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Senator Jon Tester, Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, on September 10 examined the state of crumbling irrigation infrastructure in Indian country, its impact on tribes and their economies and sought potential solutions.

“Irrigation programs are vitally important for economic development, and the infrastructure often benefits both the Indian and non-Indian communities,” Tester said. “But these systems have been allowed to deteriorate for decades. There has been some progress in better budget planning for these programs, but we need to do more.”

In 2006, a GAO study found that irrigation projects across Indian country had hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs. More recent estimates by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) place these maintenance needs at approximately $600 million.

The BIA manages more than 100 non-revenue generating irrigation systems in Indian country, which are small and mostly used for small-scale subsistence farming and gardening. The BIA also has 15 irrigation projects that are larger in scale, encompassing nearly 6,200 miles of canals and 55,000 irrigation structures, such as dams and floodgates. Unlike the irrigation systems, irrigation projects are supposed to recover their full operating and maintenance costs by charging fees to individual Indian and non-Indian water users.

The projects generate $34.7 million annually, far short of what is needed to operate and maintain the infrastructure. This gap has created a maintenance backlog of $598 million for the 15 projects.

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Larry Roberts, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior outlined the problem, “Recent BIA studies show that the irrigation projects in Indian country are in various states of disrepair. Many of the key structures still functioning today are the same structures that were constructed over 100 years ago. Historically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has not charged sufficient Operation, Maintenance & Rehabilitation rates to allow for adequate project maintenance and replacement. Over time, this has resulted in less maintenance and a steady increase in deferred maintenance. BIA has taken measureable steps to acquire better information about the irrigation projects to better understand the deferred maintenance backlog.”

Insufficient funding is leading to deferred maintenance for items such as repairing or replacing rundown structures, fixing leaks, and removing obstructions from irrigation channels. As the maintenance is deferred, the irrigation infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate, reducing the amount of acreage the project can service. The result is a downward cycle, with dilapidated irrigation projects generating even less revenue and making it even more difficult for the projects to pay for needed repairs.

Stuart Paisano, Governor of the Pueblo of Sandia, said “Each year the vast majority of the limited funds budgeted by BIA for operations, maintenance and betterment of irrigation facilities serving the six Pueblos goes for water-delivery operations and routine maintenance, such as mowing and dredging, not betterment work. Thus, our antiquated and inefficient irrigation systems continue to deteriorate. Without improved and efficient irrigation systems, there is little incentive for our farmers to invest in higher value crops or to increase the acreage they irrigate. Inefficient systems also mean more water must be diverted from the Rio Grande – a river that is significantly over-appropriated.”

Darrin Old Coyote, Chairman of the Crow Nation said, “Over the years, the tribe asserted that the BIA’s role in overseeing and maintaining our irrigation system fell short of the United States’ trust obligation to the tribe. Every Indian irrigation system is unique and poses its own challenges. In our case, we are dealing with several decades of deferred maintenance that must be remedied on a strategic and forward-thinking approach in order to make the most out of the Crow Water Settlement funds.”

Chairman Tester is a sponsor of the Authorized Rural Water Project Completion Act (S. 715), which includes funds to improve maintenance of tribal irrigation systems. The bill was reported out by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last fall, and also includes provisions that would help provide funding for numerous tribal water settlements, including two in Montana. Tester vowed to continue to push for this bill to be considered by the full Senate.