Tester fights for critical water infrastructure in Indian Country

IRRIGATE Act invests millions to improve irrigation systems on tribal lands

(U.S. SENATE)-For too long the federal government has failed to provide adequate funding to complete water projects or maintain Indian irrigation systems and Senator Jon Tester is taking steps to change that.

Tester yesterday questioned Department of Interior officials during a Senate Indian Affairs hearing on the impacts of the IRRIGATE Act, a bipartisan bill that funds deferred maintenance needs of Indian irrigation systems by using money from the Interior Department’s Reclamation Fund. Many tribal irrigation projects have gone decades without maintenance due to a lack of consistent funding.

“Irrigation systems are critical economic components on a number of reservations throughout Indian Country,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, and what seems par for the course with a lot of tribal issues, we’ve never done a good job of ensuring tribes have the resources to make these irrigation systems successful.”

Tester cautioned that fixing irrigation systems is only one part of the problem. He called for a plan to look at water projects and settlements in Indian Country in a comprehensive manner.

“We cannot continue to authorize water settlements and water projects without a plan to fund them,” Tester said.

Tester is seeking more input from tribal governments and landowners who are directly impacted by irrigation systems in Indian Country.

Fort Peck Tribal Councilman Charles Headdress Sr. testified that agriculture is a top industry on the reservation and the Fort Peck irrigation system has deferred maintenance costs of $12.7 million.

The Interior Department’s Reclamation Fund receives revenues from federal hydropower sales, natural resource and mineral leasing on public lands, water sales from Reclamation projects, and other sources. The Fund was established to support Bureau of Reclamation activities in the West, but revenues into the Fund have exceeded expenditures, leading to a balance of more than $10 billion.

Tester is Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and an original cosponsor of the IRRIGATE Act.