Needs outweigh ARPA funds
NTUA, tribe estimate $958M for water projects
By Arlyssa Becenti and Rima Krisst
Water infrastructure needs alone would exceed the funding expected from the American Rescue Plan, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s deputy general manager told the Naabik’iyatIí Committee Monday.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan provides $20 billion for tribes – $1 billion is to be allocated equally among the 574 federally recognized tribes while the U.S. Department of the Treasury will decide how the remaining funds will be distributed.
But Navajo alone could soak up nearly $1 billion just on water, according to Rex Kontz.
During the committee’s first work session on planning for the flood of federal dollars, NTUA and the Navajo Nation Water Resources Department gave a rundown on a preliminary list of water projects that add up to $958 million.
“Those two lists are basically what we are saying what the needs are on Navajo,” said Kontz. “We realistically know those won’t be funded in total and we’re going to have to be purging some of those. But those projects are complementary of one another.”
Jason John, director for Water Resources, began by saying there are over 100 water systems throughout the Nation and each could cost $10 million to upgrade.
Western Navajo Pipeline Phase 1 project has a shortfall of $58 million; LeChee Chapter watering point cost $165,000; Halchita to Kayenta water supply project will cost $130 million; Leupp to Dilkon water line is construction-ready and will cost $20.5 million and Phase 2 will cost $18 million; the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply is a $260 million project; and many more.
Although this is a preliminary list, John explained that during the CARES Act funding process, trying to get water projects underway was difficult especially within tribal restrictions.
He said major topics of discussion for CARES Act funding in 2020 included procurement, permitting, rights-of-way, construction and other requirements.
“The preconstruction activities will continue to be an issue for the implementation of the American Rescue Plan funds for water- and wastewater-related projects,” said John.
Many projects will still require planning, permitting, design, bidding and construction unless the Navajo Nation can replace already funded projects with ARPA funds, he said.
“Otherwise, the pre-construction work can take up to 2.5 years to get projects ‘shovel-ready,’” said John, meaning even the 2024 deadline is awfully tight.
He said his team still had many questions about the guidelines and restrictions that might be coming with the ARPA funds.
“It became very apparent last year with the CARES Act that there were a lot of steps that we had to go through to try to get projects ready, from meetings with leadership and other programs to getting business units established, and processing goods and services,” said John. “Every step of the way was difficult and a lot of that comes down to manpower within tribal programs and within the DWR.”
He said within his department 100 staff are scattered at a dozen sites and when the CARES Act funding was available they had to push a lot of what they were already working on to the side.
Not to mention the Water Management building has been shut down for about a year. After a decade of Band-Aid touchups to the building, the Navajo Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it was time for them to vacate after, ironically, the sewer and water systems gave out.
This issue made Water Management just another of several heavily used departments that are either working in a hazardous building or displaced altogether.
“What I fear coming forward is a large influx of money coming from the American Rescue Plan and no ability within programs to give it the attention it needs,” said John. “If they do, other projects will fall to the wayside.”
Commenting on John’s list, Budget and Finance Committee member Amber Crotty said Council needs a comprehensive listing, and because the American Rescue Plan expires in 2024, that should be in the conversation.
“We need to know realistically what can be done so we aren’t scrambling,” said Crotty, “and so there isn’t a power struggle, or a struggle to get certain projects funded.
“All of our communities deserve to have a proper plan and to know when their water will be improved,” she said, “when they will be expecting water into their home.”
NTUA’s list is a 36-month needs analysis of what they could do once they get dollars from the American Rescue Plan. Kontz displayed an Indian Health Service map that shows 4,500 homes without water.
But upon further inspection, it was found for every home two more homes were in sight, and not on IHS’s listing, that were occupied and did not have water.
Because of this it was determined at least 15,000 to 16,000 homes are without water on the reservation.
Within three phases, NTUA water and wastewater projects will cost $235 million and NTUA waterline and septic systems will cost $26.2 million. Septic tank, water line and drain fill will cost about $50,0000 to $60,000 per home. And a cistern will cost $80,000 to $100,000, based on estimates from NTUA’s recent work with CARES Act funding.
“We are trying to use the experience that we had and we built a general plan going forward,” said Kontz. “I hear the delegates all having pleadings for the projects they have in their constituencies. It’s a very difficult dialogue.
“All those needs are going to outdistance the amount of dollars but we need to focus on what projects are the priority,” he said, “and what projects will deliver the greatest impact.”
The Indian Health Service’s Division of Sanitation and Facility Construction got on the phone late, and did not have any information or detailed listing to provide delegates.
But they did say that IHS departments throughout the country would receive $10 million to divvy among them all.
During the CARES Act funding process, there was a tight deadline which needed to be met, about six months, until the deadline was extended to the end of 2021. This time around the deadline is in 2024.
Getting enough resources to implement all of the NTUA projects is definitely a challenge and involves other departments, he said, and the clearance process is the biggest challenge.
“If we can get that moving quicker, if we can create some yielding of requirements or waivers of requirements, that would be very helpful,” Kontz told Council Delegates. “The other thing is to make sure we have the capacity, staff and expertise to execute these projects.”
Kontz said NTUA is already gathering information on what the scope and cost of upsizing staff resources would look like.
To complete the CARES Act projects, they hired over 40 local contractors, he said.
“We’ve already advertised and started the process for hiring some additional engineering and technical staff as well as a few more right-of-way agents to try to move these projects as quickly as possible through the process,” said Kontz.
Using CARES Act funds, NTUA completed 30 water line connections and 28 septic systems. Pump/motor replacements for 64 targeted water wells have been completed. A total of 82 bathroom additions were completed; 105 cistern systems were installed; 100 septic systems installed, and many more
Information: A full schedule of ARPA work sessions is available at www.navajonationcouncil.org/meetings.html