WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined committee chairman Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene a legislative hearing on seven bills – the committee’s first hearing since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. Before turning to scheduled business, Udall underscored COVID-19’s ongoing and disproportionate impact on Indian Country.
“In my home state of New Mexico, and across the country, Tribal communities have been on the front lines fighting this pandemic, all while bearing the weight of historic funding gaps for health care, infrastructure, and economic resources. So it is a dereliction of duty – it is unconscionable – how long it took this Administration to allocate the $8 billion dollars in relief funding set aside for Tribal governments under the CARES Act. This is a topic our Committee will be delving into further next month,” Udall said in his opening statement.
Udall subsequently focused on the two water infrastructure bills on the hearing agenda – S.3019 and S.3044.
“The Montana Water Rights Project Act and the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act of 2019 aim to remedy decades of federal neglect of water infrastructure serving Tribal communities. COVID-19 has exposed the consequences of this federal neglect. The need to frequently wash hands is hampered when communities lack running water. Social distancing is not possible when individuals must travel long distances to common water systems and haul water back to their homes. Water and wastewater infrastructure in Tribal communities is critical to responding to this pandemic, and Congress must consider that fact when moving to any future COVID-19 emergency response legislation,” said Udall.
During questioning, Udall pressed Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Director Darryl LaCounte on the importance of recognizing water and sanitation as a public health issue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LaCounte responded that although the pandemic has magnified the link between clean, accessible water and public health, “it has always been a difficult issue.”
“It’s really important that we make sure water sources are good for everyone, particularly for the Tribes, who have been underfunded for so many years,” Udall replied.
The committee also considered S.2165, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2019, or STOP Act, which would prohibit the exportation of sacred cultural patrimony and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking these items.
“The STOP Act is an important piece of legislation that I strongly support. It will provide Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations with the tools to prevent the theft, sale, and export of their cultural patrimony. I would like to thank my colleague from New Mexico, Senator [Martin] Heinrich, for his leadership on this bill and for being a strong advocate for its advancement in the Senate,” said Udall.
Both Trump administration witnesses expressed support for the bill.