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Walker River Tribe gets the final $2.4 million needed for a clean water project

Members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, who rely on well water, have been plagued for years by water scarcity caused by a lack of infrastructure and funding.

Aging pipes, contaminants and regional drought have stretched the tribe’s existing water infrastructure to its limits, endangering both public health and economic development, according to Nevada Current.

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 water supply distribution system for more than 100 homes in the reserve.

Andrea Martinez, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said the tribe hopes to complete the project in just over two years. The project will provide 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 are fortunate to receive funding for this project. It’s really humbling to see this become a reality. 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 build a domestic water supply for communities that rely solely on well water.

That funding builds on a $5.2 million economic development grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to the tribe through 2023, a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for water quality improvements, and $3 million in state revolving loans for drinking water. 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 build a 100,000-gallon water storage tank on the Walker River Paiute Reservation for the project, which will include approximately 25,000 feet of pipeline across the reservation, and a new water line needed to build homes. .

“We will be able to bring our people back home by having this water infrastructure and building houses. Ultimately, I believe this will help our tribe grow, succeed and remain fruitful in the future,” said Martinez. “I think once we have the water infrastructure, we will be able to see our vision.”

‘Go back home’

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

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

Many homes that rely on well water do not have sufficient water pressure for home use, leaving residents with unreliable access to water. A 2019 Indian Health Service report noted that low water pressure in Walker River Paiute Tribe homes has led to health risks related to the growth of bacteria in standing water.

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

The lack of sufficient water pressure on the reservation also means that much of the reservation does not have the water pressure needed for fire hydrant lines, putting the tribe at high risk for fire damage. According to Interior, the existing water storage capacity on the reservation does not meet current fire suppression codes.

“It could have been harmful to our community if there were fires in areas where water pressure was not sufficient,” Martinez said.

The lack of water infrastructure has cost the tribe a lot of money, both in terms of public health and economic development, Martinez said.

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

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

“It’s just so sad and damaging 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, Martinez said. The tribe is also reaching a $1 million water rights settlement with the Bureau of Reclamation, which will secure the tribe’s water rights to the Weber Reservoir and recognize the tribe’s jurisdiction over groundwater on its reservation.

“This is considered a historic settlement for the tribe. I believe it has been over 100 years since we fought for our water,” Martinez said.

Once the water infrastructure project is completed, the tribe can use the hard-won water rights for the tribe’s benefit, she said.

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

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 last week announced $147.6 million in funding for 42 drought resilience projects in ten states.

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

“By working closely with states, tribes and other stakeholders, we can provide much-needed relief to communities across the West that will have a lasting impact for generations,” said Haaland.