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Settlement of Indian Reserved Water Rights Claims

Remarks Delivered By:
Michael L. Connor, Commissioner
Symposium of Settlement of Indian Water Rights Claims
Billings, MT
August 24, 2011


Thank you for that very kind introduction and for a very diplomatic way of saying, I think, my work when I was with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee entailed going through Western States Water Council reports looking for ideas, stealing those ideas, and then trying to put them to use, hopefully not taking credit as my own. But that's what good staffers do. They steal ideas from all the local talent out there and the creativity that exists outside of Washington, D.C. So if I did a little bit of that, I think I did a good job in recognizing that talent.

It's great to be here among lots of friends who I don't get to see as much anymore. But it's particularly great to be here today with what I think and I think Letty Belin talked about this, the difference between two years ago and the symposium this year. It's great to be here with, I think, a track record of success.

The administration has been strongly supportive of Indian water right settlements from the absolute start of the administration with the passage of the 2009 Ominibus Bill that had two settlements included, all the way through the Claims Resolution Act that was enacted at the end of last year that had four new settlements. And I think as the message unfolded yesterday, we think that the track record is unprecedented in nature, the six settlements in two years, but we recognize that there's a lot more work to do.

I think fundamentally I would just note it reflects a great deal over that time period of the leadership at the Department of the Interior. By that I'm talking about the leadership at the very top, from Secretary Salazar, who is strongly committed and remains strongly committed, with the boot marks to prove it. Trying to go through these Indian water right settlements and I think everybody would share that view; and, of course Deputy Secretary David Hayes, who is well known in Indian Country and a long-time, strong advocate for resolving these issues through negotiation and settlements as opposed to endless litigation, which yield little actual benefits.

Of course, we would not have gotten that success without the leadership on Capitol Hill, leadership on a bipartisan basis -- Jeff Bingaman, Jon Kyl, Jon Tester, Max Baucus -- I'm sure I'm forgetting a whole list of others -- those committed folks willing to move these things forward.

It all started fundamentally with the creativity, ingenuity, and the leadership of the tribal community, the local communities involved with the negotiations in the states. As Gil mentioned, these are momentous decisions in making judgments, compromises, trying to bring these deals home for the hopes of the long-term benefits and make these rights real that are out there on paper and bring them home.

It takes a tremendous amount of leadership and foresight to make those decisions and move forward, and people do have, at a local level, the tribal leadership that resides in the local communities and in the states and we wouldn't have a chance to even touch these in Washington, D.C. if it wasn't for that leadership. So I want to acknowledge that.

I recognize that the line-up here for the conference is a whole host of Federal officials, of which I'm one. So we're going to try and hopefully orchestrate this enough so that I'm not being redundant and we will look like a well-oiled machine. We are, but we want to give that appearance all the time, as much as possible.

I noticed yesterday, Letty recognized the committed, truly great folks in the Department of the Interior political leadership that we have, Larry Echohawk, and some others that have been just tremendously positive in leading our efforts. As well as you can't get anywhere without the dedication of the career folks, the people like Pam Williams and her team, everybody else, my team at Reclamation. We are now pointing them out. We are not only helping to negotiate these settlements, but also to bring them home.

It's true that we are overwhelmed at times, and we get a little bit grumpy at times. We all channel that to Pam.

But notwithstanding the fact that we are overwhelmed at times, we are still overwhelmingly committed to these settlements and moving them forward. And once again, I would just reiterate that if we think about resting on our laurels, Secretary Salazar is there to tell us that that's not sufficient.

It's great to be here in Billings. This is my third trip to Billings within the last six months. Obviously, a lot of the trips here have focused on the Crow's settlement, and that's appropriate. The Crows, particularly from the Bureau of Reclamation's perspective, is the largest settlement, new settlement and it brings new responsibilities for Reclamation including its implementation. So it's something that I and Mike Ryan, our regional director, and his team have been very focused on from Reclamation's standpoint about how we gear up to undertake a settlement of this magnitude.

The first time I came out here was, I think, March before the ratification vote at the invite of Chairman Black Eagle. It was a great discussion I thought that we had. We talked about the benefits of the settlement, but we really got to listen to the Crow people, and I was very encouraged, of course. And that wouldn't be true without the chairman's leadership. So that was a visit that was well worth it.

We came back for a second time in July. This time I came with Secretary Salazar and Senator Tester for a celebration of the initiation of the settlement and the ratification that was taking place. We were gearing up. We made an announcement about the first allocation of funds to the Crow Tribe directly for the administration of the settlement and their activities. It was a great event.

Dell was there with his family. And so it was a lot of fun just to celebrate the moment, to recognize the vast amount of work that we have in front of us. If we take a look and just celebrate the accomplishment itself, the ceremony is going to be one of the things that I remember most of my tenure as the Commissioner of Reclamation.

So this time I'm in Billings to talk to you all. I want to focus on Reclamation's emerging role in Indian Country and our responsibilities with respect to implementing these settlements and what I think it means for Indian Country. It's something that, quite frankly, I celebrate. That fundamentally Reclamation's mission now includes our role in helping to facilitate economic development, a foundation for the prosperity that's needed in Indian Country, and it's something that I myself and the leadership at Reclamation take very seriously as a welcome part of our mission. It's something that we're going to carry out with the same expertise and technical know-how that we've done in our past water projects, and we'll ultimately provide the tribes that foundation for which they can have that prosperity that exists in so many other places in this country.

And I'll also hand it to the chairman. That's what we talked about back in March. That was his message which I picked up on. I guess I'm still stealing ideas here, ideas there. That's what I do.

But the whole discussion we had around ratification was about the prosperity that could exist with ratification of the settlement and the successful implementation of the settlement, and that's what we're here to talk about.

Fundamentally, everybody knows the challenges that exist in Indian Country and some of the serious issues that I hope these settlements and implementation will help to address. We have 11 percent of Native American homes that lack basic access to clean water and sanitation. That's 11 percent in Indian Country versus one percent nationwide, a disparity you know well.

There's a disproportionate set of health issues on Indian reservations. And given that, the Indian Health Service has estimated that every dollar invested in clean water infrastructure in Indian Country will result in 20-fold benefits in terms of health-related benefits.

So these are good investments. They are good investments to address some historic inequities, and that makes us all feel better as we move forward into the implementation period on these settlements.

So what are we going to do with these settlements? I think fundamentally the benefits that I see are not just related to those on-the-ground items. It starts fundamentally on those that are very important. It's just finally we're recognizing and putting to use historic rights that have been claims but now are coming to reality. We're going to validate those rights, move forward, and putting them to use for the benefit of Indian Country, and it starts with various settlements from my perspective, starting from that perspective.

We're going to deliver clean water. Many of the infrastructure activities that involve the Bureau of Reclamation are going to be a new set of infrastructure projects that we're doing, bringing forward municipal and industrial water systems and domestic water systems and bringing that to tribal members who currently don't have it given the statistics I cited.

Also, we're restoring and rehabilitating infrastructure. Sometimes we're going to do that. We're going to take the lead in the Crow settlement. Sometimes it's going to be done by tribes themselves, and that's the situation in South Dakota. They have a lot of work to do with respect to restoring infrastructure with the resources available to them.

It's obviously the foundation for future economic development. The water system, water and energy, as we all know, are fundamental to the other economic type activities that need to be undertaken in Indian Country to provide that long-term prosperity. So we look at the activities that we're undertaking as foundational to that overall goal.

And then fundamentally what I want to talk about specifically are jobs. Particularly given the economic times that we're in, these settlements, in addition to the other benefits that exist, the historic recognition of rights, the United States fulfilling promises that have been long neglected, the taking care of the basic needs of Indian people, we're also going to create jobs, create jobs immediately on reservations. They're going to extend out jobs to local communities adjacent to those reservations, and we're going to have that long-term sustainability in job creation that's going to be a result of this basic infrastructure coming into play.

With respect to the story to be told about the economic benefits, I think it's very important that we set the foundation to tell that story. When Reclamation undertook our piece of the Recovery Act, we had $950 million made available to us. The Council of Economic Advisors at the time advised us that their statistic for the type of infrastructure projects that we would be engaging in were that every $92,000 that we invested of Recovery Act dollars equals one full-time job. I thought that was a fairly conservative estimate, but that's the estimate that we're going with at this point in time.

So we indicated that our Recovery Act, the part of Reclamation's Recovery Act has yielded about 10,300 jobs based on that metric. So this is the type of investment and results that we expect will be available to Indian Country over the next few years.

If we get our 2012 budget, Reclamation will have overnight the appropriations that we need to go out and get not the dollars that are promised, but yet having it come to our accounts.

Reclamation, if we get our 2012 budget and even at the House level -- the House has moved forward with the FY 2012, the Energy and Water Appropriations bill -- We did get the funding that was requested for the implementation of Indian water right settlements. So it's not unrealistic to assume that we will get the dollars we're seeking.

But overall, we will have $600 million, a little over $600 million to invest in Indian Country beginning in 2012. Of that $600 million, we have $445 million in mandatory funds. These are the funds that were made available for the Claims Resolution Act that was passed last December. We've got $72 million -- this is just Reclamation. There are other funds that are being made available to BIA to implement their parts of the settlement.

Just Reclamation's piece, $445 million in mandatory funds, $72 million for the two settlements in New Mexico, $56 million for Aamodt, $16 million for the Taos settlement. We only got a small piece of the Taos settlement, so a lot of that money is going to come to the BIA.

We have $220 million now in our accounts for the implementation of the Crow settlement, both the municipal and industrial system and the rehabilitation of the irrigation project. It's our hope that we'll be in a position here over the next couple of weeks to be able to move forward with signing our 638 contract with the Crow Tribe to begin rehabilitation of the current irrigation project and to break ground this fall on a couple of the smaller projects that are associated with the overall rehabilitation effort.

We also have $143 million to move forward with the White Mountain Apache Tribe settlement. So this is fairly historic, and I want to focus on that funding because it represents 62 percent of the $720 million that will increase over time. But that's 62 percent of the funding that we need to implement those four settlements; Reclamation needs to implement those four settlements that were passed as part of the Claims Resolution Act.

Now, it's true, and I don't want to gloss over the fact that the difference between $721 and $445 million, that difference that we have to come up with is easy in this budget climate, but we've got some time to work on that. As I noted, we've got a request for those appropriated dollars. That was a priority for this administration in our 2012 budget. Included in that $600 million, we've included $51.5 million in appropriated dollars that we're requesting.

And I can tell you diplomatically, because it's not standard for Federal agencies to throw out their criteria procedures and their standard for doing business, but that's essentially what we did with respect to the request for appropriations on the four Indian water rights settlements. The criteria procedures statement, there's a three-year lag time before we'll start requesting funds in our budget. But given the priority of implementing these settlements and the importance to Indian Country, we went ahead, and the December 20, 2010 Claims Resolution Act passed. By February 2011, we made a request for $51.5 million of those appropriated dollars. So we threw out the rule book, and I think it's going to accrue to the benefit of Indian Country.

Also, as part of that $600 million, we have $60 million in mandatory funds for moving forward with the implementation of the Navajo-San Juan settlements. Specifically, we're focused on the Navajo-Gallup settlement project which, notwithstanding the size and breadth of the Crow settlement, the Navajo-Gallup project and the other activities associated with the Navajo-San Juan settlement are far and away the biggest projects that Reclamation has ongoing anywhere in our portfolio.

Ultimately, that's going to be about a $1 billion project over a 15-year time period.

In addition, we've also got $60-plus million available for the Arizona settlements. And yes, we're still -- people tend to forget about that, the historic settlement that got enacted in 2004. I know Ron Smith hasn't forgotten about that. But it's still one of those things where the creativity of Congress and moving forward with that settlement, providing mandatory funds from rural development fund. Will continue to put those funds to work on a year-to-year basis, and we shouldn't forget that.

And finally we're racking up -- not racking up. We're closing down hopefully the Animas-La Plata project and associated municipal pipeline for the Navajo Nation in that settlement. So we're making progress, bringing certain settlements to a close and implementation, representing progress, and we'll be gearing up to take the other ones forward.

Also, we got $600-plus million that we've got available in 2012 or expect to have available in 2012, which translates to about 6,700 jobs. Most of those will be in Indian Country. Specifically, Navajo-San Juan -- of course, those jobs we'll have to ramp up, get the construction activity going. We still have some environmental documents that we need to fulfill for the Crow Settlement. We're still doing some design work. We're trying to phase things in and get some construction activity going as soon as possible.

Navajo-San Juan, though, is one we've been gearing up for the last year-and-a-half, and we expect that we're going to pick up for 2012 construction activity in earnest. We will be there at a very high level for quite a few years.

With respect to Navajo-San Juan, it's a 15-year project, as I mentioned, and we expect that just that project in that area of New Mexico, once we ramp up the full construction activity in 2013, '14, '15, '16, will be at the 650 to 750 jobs per year level.

So these are good results from all kinds of a variety of perspectives with respect to Indian Country. And not only are these jobs good for Indian Country, but they're good for the overall economy. And once again, I think that's important, and that's something that we've been talking about a great deal with the Western States Water Council and Native American Rights Council. We need to tell that story. We need to get the data. We need to track the implementation of the settlements, and we need to demonstrate the value and the benefits that they have not only for tribal communities but for the nation overall. That's something that we're going to follow up on.

We've been having some discussions in Reclamation about getting some help and making that economic analysis about tracking those benefits, and that's something that we'll be discussing with the Western States Water Council over the next year.

The bottom line, though, is it's a huge responsibility. There are still naysayers out there, in these tight budget time there are folks who are looking at the implementation and expecting that it won't go forward as planned, that we will have cost overruns at the settlements, and the money that was allocated will prove not be enough, and we hear that all the time.

I can say that we have brought home several major projects over the last couple of years under budget, ahead of schedule. That's our new mission at the Bureau of Reclamation, and that's our goal with respect to the implementation of these settlements. We're going to try to come in under budget and ahead of schedule. And I think if we do that, not only will it create benefits for tribes who have those settlements, but it's going to lay a very strong foundation and a good story to tell for those who are still trying to put their settlements together.

Finally, I just want to assure you that Reclamation understands the challenge that exists with this. We understand the challenge, and we're excited about the possibilities that taking such a strong role in Indian Country of helping to facilitate the prosperity and the benefits that have been long overdue in Indian Country. And going out, something that Senator Tester talked about when we were here in July. Senator Tester wanted to make the point that he had a lot of expectations about the Federal Government and the Bureau of Reclamation as we move forward with these settlements, and the expectation with that we successfully( implement, that we will do it in a cost-effective manner, and then, excuse my language, we get the hell out of the way.

And I think his fundamental point isn't always that you rely on the infrastructure for the foundation there, but the leadership in Indian Country, make that make its best use for people, leaders like Chairman Black Eagle. We know that you're prepared to do that. We know that you're happy to support your people moving forward. And we know our job is to work with you, to provide that foundation, and you'll reap the benefits of accrue from there.

Thank you.