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Walker River Tribe gets final $2.4M needed for clean water infrastructure project


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

For years, members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe who depend on well water have been plagued by water scarcity, brought on by a lack of infrastructure and funding. 

Between aging pipes, pollutants and regional drought, the tribe’s existing water infrastructure has been stretched to its limits — compromising both public health and economic development.

But after seven years of lobbying, the Walker River Paiute Tribe now has the funding it needs for a $12 million water system improvement project to secure a reliable and sustainable water supply for well users on the tribe’s reservation. 

In total, the project will provide a comprehensive domestic water supply distribution system for more than 100 residences on the reservation.

Andrea Martinez, the chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said the tribe hopes to complete the project in a little over two years. The project will secure clean drinking water, and expand the tribe’s capacity to add new homes on the reservation.

“This has been a priority for the tribe for years. And we’re fortunate to get funding for this project. It’s really humbling to see this come to fruition. It gives me hope for the next generations of our tribe,” Martinez said. 

Last week, the Department of the Interior awarded the Walker River Paiute Tribe more than $2.4 million to construct a domestic water supply for communities solely dependent on well water.

That funding builds on a $5.2 million U.S Department of Commerce economic development grant to the tribe in 2023, a $1 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant for water quality improvements, and $3 million in drinking water state revolving loan funds. The remaining funds would be covered by the additional American Rescue Plan funding awarded to the tribe.

The $2.4 million grant awarded last week will be used to construct a 410,000-gallon water storage tank on the Walker River Paiute Reservation for the project, which will include about 25,000 feet of pipe across the reservation, and a new water line needed to construct housing.

“We’re going to be able to bring our people back home by having this water infrastructure and building out homes. Ultimately, I think that’s going to help our tribe continue to grow and succeed and be fruitful in the future,” Martinez said. “I think once we have the water infrastructure, we’ll be able to see our vision.”

‘Coming back home’

Nevada has 21 federally recognized tribes that span 28 reservations, bands, colonies and community councils. Most reservations in Nevada are remote and face a host of challenges unique to rural communities, including lack of infrastructure, inadequate water treatment facilities, and limited funding. 

Tribes in rural Nevada are highly vulnerable to water insecurity because of a lack of access to water infrastructure stemming from policy decisions made in the early days of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation.

Many homes that rely on well water don’t have adequate water pressure for home use, leaving residents with unreliable water access. A report by the Indian Health Service in 2019 noted that low water pressure in Walker River Paiute Tribe housing has led to health risks associated with bacteria growth in stagnant water.

Improvements to water infrastructure can reduce inpatient and outpatient visits related to respiratory, skin and soft tissue, and gastroenteric disease, according to IHS. Based on 2020 data, every $1 spent on water and sewer infrastructure can save $1.18 in avoided direct health care costs for these diseases.

Lack of adequate water pressure on the reservation also means that much of the reservation lacks the water pressure needed for piping fire hydrants, putting the tribe at severe risk of fire damage. Existing water storage capacity on the reservation falls short of meeting current codes for fire suppression, according to the Interior. 

“It could have been detrimental to our community if there were fires in areas that didn’t have adequate water pressure,” Martinez said. 

Lack of water infrastructure has cost the tribe, both in terms of public health and economic development, said Martinez.

“I think that’s probably one of the fundamental contributors to why we can’t have people come back home and work for the tribe. We talk about leaving the reservation, getting educated, coming back home to help your people and make something better for the tribe. But ultimately, what I have witnessed is that there are no homes for these individuals to come home to,” she said.

A number of current tribal employees are forced to live off the reservation despite a desire to return, due to lack of housing and the necessary infrastructure needed to support those homes, said Martinez.

“It’s just so sad and detrimental to see,” she continued.

The funding for water infrastructure is a huge game changer for the tribe, and will allow the tribe to build more homes and businesses,   said Martinez. The tribe is also wrapping up a $1 million water rights settlement with the Bureau of Reclamation that will secure the tribe’s water rights to the Weber Reservoir, and recognize the tribe’s jurisdiction over groundwater on their reservation.

“This is considered a historical settlement for the tribe. I believe it’s been over 100 years that we’ve been fighting for our water,” Martinez said.

Once the water infrastructure project is complete, the tribe can utilize those hard-fought water rights for the tribe’s benefit, she said.

“We can continue to build capacity and become successful, but also build cultural preservation. If we have more citizens living on the reservation there could be a stronger sense of cultural preservation and connection to our traditions and heritage.”

The funding for the $2.4 million grant will come from the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in 2022. In total, the Department of the Interior announced $147.6 million in funding for 42 drought resilience projects in ten states last week.

In a statement announcing the funding, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland applauded the Biden administration for “making record investments to safeguard local water supplies and build climate resilience now and into the future.”

“By working together in close coordination with states, Tribes and other stakeholders, we can provide much needed relief for communities across the West that will have a lasting impact for generations,” Haaland said.

Nevada Current
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