Presidents DeFazio and Napolitano Urge Corps to Improve Partnership with Tribal Communities to Address Water Resource Challenges

February 18, 2022

Washington D.C.- House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Water Resources and Environmental Subcommittee Chairman Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to strengthen its communication and coordination with partners, particularly tribal communities.

“Partnerships are the foundation of the Corps Project delivery process,” wrote the members. “Thorough and effective communication between the Corps and nonfederal sponsors can lead to tremendous success stories, where entire communities see the benefits of these projects. However, where effective communication is lacking or non-existent, it limits the possibilities for successful and locally supported resolution of local water resource challenges.

The members continued: “We urge you to take steps to ensure that each tribal community has the necessary information, accessibility and consultation with the Corps to access these funds and build positive working relationships to move their projects forward.”

The Water Resources Development Acts (WRDAs), which the Transport and Infrastructure Committee has developed and passed on a bipartisan, biennial basis since 2014, are key to addressing local water resource challenges in the 50 States, territories and tribal communities. In WRDA 2020, Congress aimed to improve communication and coordination with underserved partners by requiring the Corps to engage minority and tribal communities on policies and projects, expanding the Corps’ consultation requirements with tribal groups and when working on or near tribal lands and increased permissions for the Tribal Partnership Program.

The Committee is currently working on the formulation of a new WRDA for 2022.

The full letter can be found below and here.

February 18, 2022

The Honorable Michael L. Connor
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works
Department of the Army
108 Army Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20310-0108

Dear Assistant Secretary Connor:

We are writing to explain how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) engages, consults with, and partners with nonfederal sponsors to carry out its functions, as directed by Congress. In particular, we encourage stronger communication and coordination with tribes across the United States.
Partnerships are the foundation of the Corps project delivery process. Thorough and effective communication between the Corps and nonfederal sponsors can lead to tremendous success stories, where entire communities see the benefits of these projects. However, where effective communication is lacking or non-existent, it limits opportunities for successful and locally supported resolution of local water resources challenges.

The Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently held a hearing during which it received testimony from two tribal chairmen about their experiences working with the Corps.[1] President Darrell G. Seki Sr. of the Chippewa Indian Band of Red Lake, MN spoke of his tribes long and complicated history of working with the Corps. Chairman Seki found that communications with Corps personnel “ranged widely from very simple and cordial to almost non-existent” and that bureaucracy “can be extremely difficult to navigate”.[2]

President Peter Yucupicio, of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Arizona, spoke of “the dire need for additional federal investments in the development, repair and replacement of…infrastructure on tribal lands.” He went on to say that “unfortunately, many tribes lack the financial resources to meet these infrastructure needs. Complicating these challenges, tribes often find that federal programs established to address water infrastructure needs in the United States are difficult to access.[3]

In the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020Congress included several provisions intended to foster greater coordination between the Corps and Indian tribes, as well as to address some of the challenges tribes face in partnering with the Corps to address local water resource issues.[4]

For example, section 112(a) of WRDA 2020 directed the Corps to quickly complete two congressional-mandated reports regarding the Corps’ long-overdue tribal relations.[5] Article 112 (b) and (c) of the WRDA 2020directed the Secretary to “promote meaningful involvement” with Indian tribes in carrying out water resource development projects, including providing additional advice and technical assistance to tribes “to increase understanding of development activities and implementation of the project, regulations and policies of the Corps.. ”[6]

Similarly, Article 118 of the WRDA 2020 authorized the Corps to work with rural and economically disadvantaged communities, including tribal communities, to develop feasibility studies for projects to reduce flood risk and reduce damage from hurricanes and storms to 100 % cost sharing with the federal government.[7]

President Biden has also made it a priority of his administration to improve engagement with tribes. On January 26, 2021, the President issued the Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationswhich reaffirms Executive Order 13175 (Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments) and Presidential Memorandum of November 5, 2009 (Tribal Consultation).[8] The January 2021 memorandum directs the head of each agency to report on efforts to implement the objectives of Executive Order 13175.

Also, on November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act in the law. [9] the Employment Act provides $17.1 billion to the Corps to carry out its civil works missions. This transformational investment will improve navigation in our ports, harbors and inland waterways; increasing resilience to flooding and mitigating potential damage from extreme weather events; preserve and restore vital ecosystems that are important to many communities and cultures in our country; and invest in environmental infrastructure projects that meet local wastewater and water supply needs. We urge you to take steps to ensure that each tribal community has the necessary information, accessibility and consultation with the Corps to access these funds and build positive working relationships to move their projects forward.

Accordingly, we urge you to consider the testimonies received by the subcommittee and to improve tribal consultation, both in policy and in practice in the 38 districts of the Corps. Specifically, we ask that you share your thoughts on the recommendations received by the subcommittee, including:

  1. Designate a dedicated staff member as Tribal Liaison for each Corps district to increase government-to-government consultation, ensure tribes are informed of current and future Corps activities, and address tribal concerns ;
  2. Develop a written plan for tribal engagement on environmental infrastructure programs, including that notice of the availability of funding be shared with eligible tribes, as well as outlining the types of projects eligible for such programs; and
  3. Adjust cost-sharing requirements on Corps projects for disadvantaged tribes and communities, particularly for environmental infrastructure projects.

Additionally, please share any information on the Corps’ report on tribal engagement efforts, as per the January 2021 Presidential Memorandum titled “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relations.
As the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee develops the next WRDA for 2022, we look forward to continuing to work with you to improve consultation and partnership between tribal governments and the Corps.

Truly,

PETER A. DeFAZIO
Chair
Transportation Committee and
Infrastructure

GRACE F. NAPOLITANO
Chair
Water Resources and Environment Sub-Committee

cc: Lieutenant General Scott A. Spellmon, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General
United States Army Corps of Engineers


[4] Pub. L. 116-260, division AA.

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