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USDA Awards Tribes $4 Million for Water Projects

Helen Bobbie Smoker, 97, will finally have clean water again thanks to recent grants from the USDA totally $4 million.

One of the Yurok Tribe’s oldest members will soon have reliable access to clean water thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Helen Bobbie Smoker, 97, whose well once tapped a now-defunct spring, will be served by a pipeline running from a creek on the Yurok reservation over a Caltrans bridge onto the Hoopa Reservation where Smoker, and her daughter, Mary, 80, ended up after the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act.

Nicole Sager, senior planner for the Yurok Tribe’s Planning Department, says, “This Emergency Community Water Assistance Grant project was really amazing for the tribe to be able to for the first time look at the prospect of bringing water from the Yurok side of things across the bridge to the church and four homes and then down the road to the Smoker residence with the goal ultimately of giving the Smokers water.”

The project, made especially complex because of multiple jurisdictions and permitting requirements, has been in the works since 2010 when it became clear that the spring on which the Smokers relied would soon be useless because of the worsening drought in the West.

“The USDA was pretty forthcoming in wanting to work with the tribe to get some of these issues settled,” says Sager.

This ECWAG program was one of five the USDA made to California tribes struggling with drought. Recipients included Big Sandy Rancheria, the Cortina Band of Wintun Indians (two grants), the Grindstone Indian Rancheria and the Yurok Tribe. A sixth went to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota.

U.S. Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack tells ICTMN, “The California grants predominantly focused on drought conditions and the ability of tribes in the area to install infrastructure to better manage drought. In Minnesota the grant/loan combination was for water system improvements.”

Over the course of the Obama administration, the USDA has approved 141 projects totaling $314 million in Indian country for water-related initiatives, including the $4 million for these projects, he says.

The USDA offers both grant and loan programs, but “in California because of the extent of the drought, the severity of the drought and the struggling nature of many of these tribes financially [we determined] a grant is more helpful to them.”

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On November 2 the USDA announced it was awarding $299 million for 88 projects funded through the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program and $15 million for 53 grants funded by the Emergency Community Water Assistance Grant Program.

Drought and extreme weather are impacts of climate change, and Vilsack says USDA is taking on that challenge.

“Here’s what we know. We know that climate is changing. We know that has an impact on weather. It can be more intense storms. In some cases it can be longer droughts. It can be more severe flooding. It can also be … pest and disease issues which we’re currently seeing in many forested areas of the West with pine beetle infestations which otherwise would have been not a problem in the past but because of warming temperatures now are a problem,” he says.

“So what we decided to do in USDA to be helpful was to create a series of climate hubs which are research entities that combine our agricultural research service, our forest service research capacities and our conservation efforts in an effort to try to evaluate the vulnerabilities of each region of the country as it relates to agriculture and forestry and come up with a series of recommendations for landowners as to what they can do to mitigate the impacts due to a changing climate.

“Those hubs have made regional assessments [available on the agency’s website href="http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome"] and we’re now in the process of figuring out what we do about it so we can use cooperative extension services, universities and tribal colleges to get the word out as to what strategies would be best to deal with the impacts of climate change,” says Vilsack.

USDA initiatives focused on Indian country include its programs for socially disadvantaged minority producers. “These are farmers, ranchers who in the past have had a hard time accessing assistance from the USDA. We’ve significantly improved our efforts in reaching out to minority producers, making loans and loan programs more available, putting out microloan programs, increasing the percentage of our loan dollars and loan applications coming from socially-disadvantaged producers.”

Also, “We’ve worked with a number of Native American tribes in the utilization of conservation programs, particularly in relation to irrigation systems and water systems that are used by tribes or large-scale growing operations.”

Tribal colleges, Vilsack says, are expected to play an increasing role in USDA initiatives. On November 5, he is expected to announce the availability of additional resources for tribal colleges at the 7th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington. “Tribal colleges are an important source of education and outreach and steering students towards careers in agriculture.” The USDA research grants program investment will focus on building research capacity at tribal colleges, says Vilsack.