Mni Wiconi -- Water is Life. Photo by Joe Brusky / Overpass Light Brigade

Senate passes water bill but fails to include #NoDAPL amendment

The Senate passed a national water bill on Thursday with a slew of pro-tribal provisions but failed to address the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced an amendment to S.2848, the Water Resources Development Act, that would have required more study of a key portion of the controversial project. That's something the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the #NoDAPL movement have been seeking all along.

But the proposal was never brought up for consideration on the floor and it was not among the amendments that were included in the bill by agreement among lawmakers. S.2848 itself passed a vote of 95 to 3.

Sanders discussed the lack of a environmental impact statement at a rally that drew hundreds of people to the White House on Tuesday. He said the study would show why the pipeline should not move forward.

“Our species will not survive if we continue to destroy nature, so today we stand united in saying stop the pipeline, respect Native American rights and let us move forward to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels," Sanders said at the rally.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Sen. Bernie Sanders #NoDAPL Rally at White House

Despite the omission of the #NoDAPL amendment, the Water Resources Development Act includes a number of provisions that will benefit Indian Country. The entire text of S.2717, the Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act (DRIFT Act), was included in the measure before passage.

The DRIFT Act invests $655 million over 20 years to address dam maintenance across Indian Country. Without the funds, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has admitted that it won't be able to reduce the backlog in long-overdue repairs.

The DRIFT Act also makes some reforms to tribal programs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has been reviewing the Dakota Access project. One provision allows the agency to pay for the first $100,000 for feasibility studies, including those that protect tribal cultural and natural resources.

"I am glad the Senate has taken action to address the badly needed maintenance of dams in tribal communities,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who introduced S.2771 in March, said in a press release on Thursday. “This bill holds Washington accountable to maintain high-risk dams in Wyoming and across the country."

In addition to the DRIFT Act, S.2848 ratifies a water rights settlement for the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. Chairman Harry Barnes said he was "thrilled" to see some progress on the agreement, which has been in the works since the 1980s.

"The Blackfeet Tribe is excited about today's news, and while we still have some work to do, this is a very important step toward securing and protecting our water rights," Barnes said in a press release from the office of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the sponsor of S.1125, the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act.

Another provision of S.2848 benefits the four tribes with treaty rights on the Columbia River. The bill seeks to address housing needs of Indian families who were displaced by the creation of the Bonneville Dam and the John Day Dam decades ago.

"It's totally unacceptable that decades after the federal government’s dams wiped out our tribes’ communities and fishing sites with thousands of years of history, we still have not honored our obligations to tribal members along the Columbia River," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) said in a press release.

And yet another portion of S.2848 aims to bring finality to a controversial dispute that arose under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. S.2848 requires the Army Corps to transfer the remains of the Kennewick Man -- an 8,500-year-old Native ancestor who was removed from his resting place along the Columbia River in 1996 -- to the state of Washington.

The state would then allow for him to be reburied by his tribal relatives, who refer to him as the Ancient One. DNA tests have linked him to present-day Native peoples, including to members of the Colville Tribes in Washington.

"After more than twenty years of debate, it’s time to return the Ancient One to his rightful resting place,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said in a press release. “I’m proud to see this legislation so close to the finish line. I’ll be fighting to ensure we get this done to honor his descendants and write the final chapter on the history of the Ancient One.”

Finally, S.2848 includes language to address the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted the water systems on three reservations in the Southwest. The bill speeds up the reimbursement process for the Navajo Nation -- whose leaders have spent at least $3.8 million so far on emergency and other costs -- and other affected governments.

"I will keep working -- many Navajo farmers and others across the region have not seen a dime to compensate them for their losses, and we must ensure everyone impacted by the spill gets the help they need," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said in a press release on Thursday.

With work complete in the Senate for now, attention turns to the House, whose version of the Water Resources Development Act is H.R.5303. The bill in its current form does not include any of the pro-tribal provisions and does not address the Dakota Access Pipeline either. It could be brought up for consideration next week.

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