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Bureau of Indian Affairs official admits no progress on dam backlog

A spillway at the Washakie Dam on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Photo by Neil St Clair via Facebook

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is refusing to fully endorse a bill that would inject significant resources into dam maintenance even though a top official admitted to making little to no progress on the matter.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced S.2717, the Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act (DRIFT ACT), on March 17. The bill authorizes a total of $655 million over 20 years to address a $500 million backlog in maintenance at dams across Indian Country.

"The threat to public safety in and around Indian Country is a serious concern," Barrasso said at a hearing on Wednesday. "It is critical that we make these necessary changes to ensure that tribes and surrounding communities are protected."

But while Mike Black, the director of the BIA, said the Obama administration supports the "intent" of the measure, he questioned the need to create a special set of funds to fix and improve the dams. He instead argued that the BIA's Safety of Dams Program should be allowed to determine how to resolve the backlog within existing funding restraints.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing April 13, 2016

According to Black, the BIA's fiscal year 2017 budget request includes about $23 million for the program, an increase of $2 million above current levels. Of that amount, only $10 million to $12 million goes to rehabilitation.

"And that would be adequate to address the problem?" asked Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, when Black tried to defend the request.

"No. Honestly it wouldn't," Black responded.

'With a $500 million backlog in deficiencies, it would take half of my budget, basically, to really begin to address this issue," Black acknowledged.

The dam maintenance backlog indeed is just one of many facing the BIA. The so-called Bronner report from 2012 estimated it could cost nearly $3 billion just to fix problems at the "highest risk" facilities within the Bureau of Indian Education. The agency's school replacement program only got back on track last year after more than a decade of inaction amid long-standing concerns about unsafe schools.

An outlet flow at Cochiti Dam at Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo by Joe Pfeifer via Facebook

Barrasso points out that aging dams pose another safety risk. Two of the "high-hazard" dams -- the BIA admits to at least 137 in that condition -- are located on the Wind River Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe, in his state.

More than 700 other dams are considered "low-hazard" or haven't been fully inspected to make an adequate assessment. The problem will only keep growing -- Black's testimony said the deferred maintenance costs rise by 6 percent every year.

"Everything we do, a majority of what we do, is underfunded," Black told the committee.

Barrasso's bill is the first major attempt to address dams in Indian Country since Congress passed the Indian Dams Safety Act in 1994. That law came after the Government Accountability Office reported in 1992 that the BIA has failed to identify or resolve deficiencies in a timely manner.

“We need to move this legislation as expeditiously as possible and get it signed into law," Barrasso said. On average, he said dams in Indian Country are 70 to 80 years old.

The DRIFT Act authorizes a High-Hazard Indian Dam Safety Deferred Maintenance Fund that would receive $22.75 million a year from fiscal years 2017 through 2037. Another $10 million a year would be set aside for a Low-Hazard Indian Dam Safety Deferred Maintenance Fund.

The two funds would be established at the Treasury Department. The bill requires the money to be transferred to the BIA.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on the following bills (April 13, 2016)

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