A canal on the Swinomish Reservation in Washington. Photo: Greg Corbolotti / U.S. Department of the Interior

Permanent tribal water settlement fund back on agenda on Capitol Hill

The House Committee on Natural Resources is taking testimony on Thursday on a bill to create a permanent fund for tribal water rights settlements.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, introduced H.R.1904, the Indian Water Rights Settlement Extension Act, on March 27. He said tribes need to know that the federal government, as their trustee, will be able to fund the water rights settlements they have already finalized, along with future ones that are being negotiated.

“Water is a basic necessity, and tribes shouldn’t have to fight for access to basic necessities,” Grijalva said. “Climate change and drought are making water harder to come by across the West. This bill gives tribes the resources they need to build and improve their water systems, sustain cultural practices, improve health, welfare and agriculture, and help their economies grow.”

Congress created the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund in 2009 and authorized $120 million into the fund every year from 2020 through 2029. However, the funding has already been spoken for, the Trump administration confirmed at a hearing on the issue last July.

Despite acknowledging the shortfall, Alan Mikkelsen, the former deputy commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation, would not commit to supporting an extension of the fund once the money runs out in 2029.

"I would say that we are looking forward to the opportunity that this bill affords us, to discuss how to address the issue in the future, and we do look forward to working with you on this," Mikkelsen told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in a wordy yet evasive response.

The answer was directed to Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee. He sponsored a prior version of the water settlement bill and has introduced S.886 in the 116th Congress.

“In the West and in Indian Country, these settlements play a critical role in communities’ long-term economic sustainability," Udall said. "This legislation will provide predictable and reliable funding for current and future Indian water rights settlements, curtailing the use of securing water rights through costly litigation, while protecting the Bureau of Reclamation’s budget."

"At time when water security is threatened by climate change and droughts – the importance of providing certainty to our communities cannot be overstated,” Udall added.

Though Mikkelsen now boasts a new title at the Department of the Interior, he will get another shot at explaining the Trump administration's stance on the matter at the hearing on Thursday, which takes place at 10am Eastern in Room 1324 of the Longworth House Office Building. The full witness list follows:
Alan Mikkelsen
Senior Advisor to the Secretary
Water and Western Resource Issues, Department of the Interior

John Echohawk
Executive Director
Native American Rights Fund

Michelle Bushman
Legal Counsel
Western States Water Council

Dave Roberts
Associate General Manager for Water Resources
Salt River Project

Edward D. Manuel
Tohono O’odham Nation

House Committee on Natural Resources Notice
Legislative Hearing (April 4, 2019)

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