Prez, Council ponder spending $600M by December
In a rare show of unity, elected officials are actually finding common ground when it comes to spending the $600.5 million in CARES Act funds the Nation has had for nearly a month.
The Navajo Nation president and Council seem to agree that at least a portion of it should be spent on water infrastructure. But whether or not that is feasible is up for debate.
During last week’s Naabik’iyati’ Committee work session, it was explained that three criteria have to be satisfied in order to spend the dollars, which were given to tribes to fight the coronavirus. Should the Nation spend these funds in a way that doesn’t meet requirements, the Nation will then have to repay the federal government.
The funds are to be used for “necessary expenditures” incurred due to the public health emergency of COVID-19; the Nation can’t spend on items already listed in the tribe’s FY 2020 budget; and the cost must be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.
“We understand water has been a major issue,” said Resource and Development Chair Rickie Nez. “A lot of our people need water. Would this be a necessary expenditure to pay for that?”
Tribal attorneys were unable to give him a firm yes or no. “I know there is a lot of frustration from the delegates so far in that they are not getting the answer they want,” said Chief Legislative Chief Counsel Dana Bobroff, “when they ask if this particular project is eligible for funding under the Navajo Nation CARES Act. “There is no list from the treasury … there are examples, and criteria on what type of project is eligible,” she said.
Jason John, director of the Navajo Nation’s Department of Water Resources, gave an overview of what is needed for water infrastructure to be built. Making certain the funding is used properly is one thing.
Actually getting water on the Nation is another, because there are so many facets to consider. “It takes two to two-and-a-half years to go through planning, design, permits for right-of-way to get a project up to bid and get the contractor selected,” explained John. “That time frame is critical when it comes to the $600 million allocated. We are concerned on the restriction imposed.”
In the 2010 census there were 50,000 homes on the Navajo Nation and this number has increased. The Indian Health Service holds the data on how many of these homes do not have access to water.
“The Navajo Nation has taken a proactive step to fund some of these projects,” said John. “There was reluctance decades ago for the Navajo Nation to pay for these projects that was the responsibility of the United States government. Those funds have been lacking, so the Navajo leadership had to come around to fund them.”
Some of the most pressing (and difficult) projects include Navajo Mountain and the Manymules Project in Black Mesa, Arizona.
In 2016 the Navajo Nation Council appropriated over $200 million of its own money to go toward water projects and $80 million of this went to the IHS for its sanitation deficiency system listing project, which gets water directly to homes. To fund every request on the sanitation listing would cost $520 million, but most of those projects are not considered feasible at this time. Some $133 million in projects are considered feasible, and this is what John proposed they fund through the CARES Act.
“The concepts that are being presented today is to fund the remaining projects that were approved in 2016 and then fund the projects that are currently on IHS listing for water, wastewater and solid waste,” said John. “The Indian Health Service is understaffed. One of the options is the Navajo Nation contracting some of this work that could be paid for from CARES Act.”
But a lot of these SDS projects are not water lines and involve tanks and outdoor plumbing. This would require water hauling, and the water-hauling program on Navajo Nation is nonexistent because the grant to supplement it ran out.
Dave McDonald with Indian Health Service said they already were allocated $26 million of the $133 million, so the list is pared down a bit. “Projects are funded year to year,” explained McDonald. “We are moving down that list but it’s a slow process.”
Electricity is another factor, since water projects often require some electrical pumping. Homes that don’t have running water also don’t have indoor bathrooms, which run up to $25,000 a home.
“Water to homes — that alone is $330 million,” said John.
Repairing the Nation’s dilapidated windmills is another possibility. Adding another $12 million for that would bring the cost of the total package over $700 million, according to John.
Rex Koontz, head of Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said John’s suggestion would produce long-term sustainability.
After the detailed presentation, Law and Order Committee member Vince James asked whether it is possible to complete the projects by December, as stipulated in the CARES Act.
“It’s nearly impossible … building water to homes, building water lines … the process takes two to two-and-a-half years,” said John. “There are steps to get to that point. You are going from three years to two months. It’s impossible to have it done by December.”
President Jonathan Nez, whose bill regarding the CARES Act is ready for committee consideration, said teams have been set up to help identify what policies and regulations need to be set aside in order to expedite projects, piquing the interest of Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt. “We did send a letter to our congressional delegation asking for an extension,” said Nez. “We have to have ask for an extension. While everyone else was spending their CARES Act fund … we had to wait seven, eight weeks before the money came to Navajo.”
Rudy Shebala, director of the Division of Natural Resources, told the Naabik’iyati’ Committee that Nez has priorities to get running water to 7,500 Navajo families and develop farms on the western side of Navajo, among other things. Health, Education and Human Services Committee member Pernell Halona said there are more and more people building homes and requesting electricity and water.
There needs to be a consensus for homes to be built near infrastructure, he suggested. He also said there are homes that were retrofitted with water and electricity and as years go by the kids move away, the elders pass on and the fully equipped home is abandoned. “We have all these scattered homes in remote areas and that will continue to contribute to the problem we have,” said Halona. “We need to make some new rules in our home-site lease. There are a lot of homes empty.”