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Red Lake tribe demands BIA replace crumbling water system
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Red Lake maintenance worker Arlan Jordan stands in front of the Red Lake water tower. Jordan says the town's water system is deteriorating and needs constant repair. He says there have been underground leaks in the water supply lines for decades. The Red Lake tribe is demanding the Bureau of Indian Affairs replace the 100-year-old system, which is owned by the BIA. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe is in a fight with the federal government. The tribe is demanding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs replace Red Lake's antiquated water system. The BIA built the system about 100 years ago. It's still owned by the BIA. But underground pipes leak. Water mains burst several times a year. The problem has become critical. Water pressure is so low it's crippled the fire department's ability to fight fires. Tribal officials say the BIA has known about the problem for years. They say the agency is ducking its responsibility.

Red Lake, Minn. — Arlan Jordan has worked in the Red Lake maintenance department for 29 years. He says as long as he can remember, the reservation's underground water supply lines have leaked. Jordan is standing in the middle of the street. It's a spot that's been dug up over and over to repair burst lines and crumbling pipes.

"Every joint is leaking," said Jordan. "We just covered them back up and patch them as best we could and, hopefully, they'll hold, you know. That's what I dread every morning, coming to work and see water coming up in the street."

The main water lines burst about a half dozen times a year. When that happens, government offices are closed. Kids are sent home from school. The system also serves a hospital, nursing home and residential neighborhoods.

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Image Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain

Tribal officials say the problem has become dangerous. Because the water mains are leaking so badly, the water tower can't be filled to capacity. That means low water pressure. It means fire hydrants are ineffective. And the fire department can't quickly fill its tanker trucks. Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain says that puts the entire community at risk.

"Children, families, the institutions that rely on that water system," said Jourdain. "If there was some sort of hazardous incident, we wouldn't be able to adequately provide the right amount of water pressure to be able to handle an emergency situation like that. So the situation is very serious."

Fixing the water system is the federal government's responsibility. It's part of treaty agreements that date back to the late 1800s. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has known about the problem since the early 90s. The agency designed an upgrade, and in 1996 earmarked more than $2 million for the project.

But a year later, the money disappeared. Lisa Spears is Red Lake's self governance coordinator. Spears says the BIA's own records mistakenly show the project had been completed. Spears says, instead, the money was diverted elsewhere.

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Image Lisa Spears, Red Lake self-governance coordinator

"Since then, we've been kind of badgering the BIA to come up with dollars to construct the project," Spears said. "And it's been a battle, to say the least. I think it's been analyzed to death."

Bureau of Indian Affairs officials did not immediately return phone calls for this story.

Tribal leaders say they're willing to take ownership of the water system. But not until it's repaired and up to code. That cost has now climbed to more than $3 million.

Shawn McKnight is the tribe's head engineer. He says it's not just the water system that's been neglected by the federal government. For example, the police department and tribal court system are housed in BIA-owned buildings the agency itself has condemned.

Tribes are very frustrated with the system... It's a funding problem in Congress. Often, the BIA doesn't have the money to do this stuff.
- John Dossett, general counsel for National Congress of American Indians

"There are volumes of examples where the federal government has, to put it mildly, failed in their written agreements with the band," said McKnight. "I'm somewhat surprised that a group of Americans can be so consistently and thoroughly denied their basic rights under written agreements."

Observers say the story is the same with Indian tribes across the country. John Dossett is an attorney for the National Congress of American Indians.

"Tribes are very frustrated with the system," said Dossett. "It's a funding problem in Congress. Often, the BIA doesn't have the money to do this stuff. And I think one of our bigger concerns is that we're probably seeing more budget cuts coming in the future."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs budget has been cut every year since 1995. More cuts are likely at least over the next two years.

Red Lake tribal leaders are set to meet with top-ranking BIA officials Dec. 3 to talk about the deteriorating water system. One Red Lake official says -- given the BIA's track record -- she's not overly optimistic.

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