…Historically, a dearth of water and related infrastructure have contributed to persistent poverty on the reservations.
…“You wouldn’t believe how many people are using outhouses and hauling water here,” tribal member Frank Means told the Medill News Service in 1989. “It’s like living in another country.”
…Although the project can deliver up to 20m gallons of potable water daily to an estimated 52,000 people – about one-fourth of them white, and the rest Native American – it has been beset by overspending and incompletion. The unfinished parts happen to be at the tribal ends of the pipeline and have become another example of unfulfilled promises by the federal government to indigenous people.
Despite 25 years of construction that cost nearly a half-billion dollars, only about half of the water delivered by the Mni Wiconi system to the Pine Ridge Reservation is derived from the Missouri River. The rest comes from the reservation’s own wells, which were incorporated in the project to save money.
In reservation towns and villages, the new pipeline water is fed into old community water systems – some of which date to the 1960s, with pipes made of potentially hazardous asbestos-cement. The Mni Wiconi’s builders pledged but failed to replace those antiquated systems.
…Meanwhile, the 15 predominantly white communities and scores of politically connected white ranchers who are served by the Mni Wiconi pipeline have reaped its full benefits.
…The project’s engineers found that if they designed a Missouri River pipeline big enough to serve all the participants, the cost would blow past the authorized ceiling. So, they decided to obtain some of the project’s water from the High Plains Aquifer system, including the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies underneath parts of the Pine Ridge Reservation but does not extend into the West River/Lyman-Jones service area. The Oglala Sioux people were made to replace half of their share of Missouri River water with groundwater, essentially to benefit their white neighbors.
Despite the pitfalls, Missouri River water started flowing to some project participants in the early 2000s, though it did not reach Pine Ridge reservation until 2008.
The three tribes and the West River/Lyman-Jones system were each responsible for their own bidding and contracting. Bids came in higher on the reservations, where some contractors were loth to work because of the remoteness, the complicated tribal politics and contracts requiring preferential hiring of Native Americans.
…When the last sunset date arrived in 2013, several aspects of the project remained unfinished, and prospects for further congressional support were dim.
Congress had recently banned earmarking – the practice of inserting funds for local projects into broader appropriations bills – which had provided much of Mni Wiconi’s budget.
…The proposed legislation would have funded replacements of the community water systems on the reservations, as originally authorized by the original 1988 law, which stipulated that the water systems could be purchased from the tribes, tribal members, or other residents of Pine Ridge who owned them.
But the purchase of the systems was dismissed in the 1993 engineering report, which declared, “donation of these systems is expected”.
…When asked if he thinks Native Americans were used by whites to get a water pipeline approved by Congress, Pressler said, “I would say the answer is partially yes.”