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The American People Are Paying Attention to Indian Country – Why Doesn’t Congress?

We’re nearing the end of a congressional session that saw Native American sovereignty rise to the greatest national prominence it’s had in decades. From the Dakota Access Pipeline to nationwide efforts to protect sacred land and historic sites, Indian country is finally getting a portion of the political and media attention it’s long deserved.

Unfortunately, the Republican majority in Congress hasn’t been interested. Over the past two years, the House has failed to fulfill one of its most fundamental responsibilities to Indian country: approving and funding Indian water rights settlements. These settlements are a crucial tool used by Congress to provide tribes with water to which they are legally entitled. Without congressionally approved settlements, many tribes lack the water resources to maintain public health and educational quality.

As my staff documented in a recent report titled “Water Delayed is Water Denied,” clean water access and sanitation figures on numerous reservations across the nation more closely resemble developing countries than they do the rest of the United States. Thousands of Native families continue to lack basic services like clean running water and flush toilets. As a result, Native families often end up drinking unclean water that increases disease risks and impairs tribal economic development.

The Navajo Nation, to take just one example, lacks access to running water for 30 percent of residents. For these families, obtaining water is often a daily struggle. The Navajo Nation estimates that 54,000 Navajos have to haul their water from backyard wells and stock ponds. Federal testing of current water sources has consistently found these water supplies do not meet federal drinking water standards for uranium or other radioactive particles that cause cancer and other serious illnesses.

Such conditions are common in Indian country – much more so than is widely understood. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, 58 percent of the wells tested are contaminated by arsenic, lead, and other sources of radiation. For the Santee Sioux Nation and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, more than a quarter of the wells on both reservations are contaminated with high levels of nitrate-nitrogen and coliform bacteria – two toxins that cause blood disorders and intestinal issues. On the Crow Reservation in Montana, university researchers have found drinking water contaminated with high levels of arsenic, manganese, uranium, and bacteria that causes pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and Legionnaire’s disease. In the richest country in the world, such living conditions for our Native American brothers and sisters are frankly unacceptable.

Since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Winters v. United States more than a century ago, American Indian reservations have had explicit legal rights to enough water to fulfill a reservation’s purpose as a permanent homeland. Indian water rights settlements help quantify a tribe’s water rights and provide the funding needed for tribes to exercise their rights and bring water to their communities.

While Congressional Republicans have historically been less supportive of Indian water settlements – over the past 40 years, only 17 percent of settlements have been enacted when Republicans controlled Congress, while 72 percent were enacted when Democrats controlled Congress – the failure of the current GOP House to fund settlements is bad even by their standards. Over the past six years, since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election, Congress has failed to fund a single Indian water settlement despite numerous settlement bills being introduced.

Two years ago, when Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah) became Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, some in Indian country expressed hope that the 114th Congress would be different. They continue to wait. A do-nothing GOP Congress still has yet to fund a single settlement.

As the 114th Congress draws to a close, there’s still time for Congress to do right by Indian country. The House of Representatives will return for a “lame duck” session before the end of the 114th Congress. Native Americans have already waited patiently only to see their valid, legal water rights ignored by a congressional majority that considers their needs unimportant. Further inaction would be an insult.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.