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The Politics of Bringing Water to South Dakota's 'Indian Country' - 2003-09-02

Most Americans take a clean drink of water for granted, just a sink or water cooler away. But for some rural communities, especially Indian reservations, safe drinking water is often a luxury. Since 1988, the Oglala Sioux tribe of South Dakota has spearheaded a project to bring treated Missouri River water to eleven counties and three reservations. But as Brian Bull reports, project officials fear that politics will dam the pipeline in its final stages.

In the Lakota language, Mni Wiconi means, 'water is life'. For those in the small community of Milk's Camp, South Dakota, it's a fitting name for the pipeline project that promises to deliver pure drinking water. Government tests show that much of the water here is contaminated by leaking septic tanks or farm chemicals that have seeped into the porous soil.

So, many Milk's Camp residents get their water from Alfred Old Lodge. On this windy hot day, Mr. Old Lodge clears away some tall grass and tires in his front yard, to reveal his prized well. "Every time I get a chance I come out here and sit here, and just thank the Lord for giving us this fresh water," he says.

Mr. Old Lodge adds that he shares his well with local families and members of the Rosebud and Yankton Sioux reservations, because his water is the safest, and freshest available. "So far, you know, the nitrates and bacteria haven't gotten into this well at all," he explains.

One visitor today is Vanessa LaPointe, who holds her baby in one arm, while filling a plastic jug at his kitchen sink in the other. "I'm just filling up water, for the baby to drink, because our water isn't any good," she says. "It tastes a little bit like there's a lot of chlorine in it."

But soon, people here may not need the water from this well. Planners with the Mni Wiconi Pipeline Project are connecting several communities to clean water sources. Milk's Camp will be able to access water from a nearby county's supply of wells, while other areas will tap into a more abundant source.

In Ft. Pierre, 225 kilometers away, Missouri River water, more than two million liters a day, rushes through the Mni Wiconi water treatment plant. Operator Bryan Hill points to a deep concrete basin, filled with rippling water. "As it goes through there, it gets measured out, and it also monitors the pH level of the raw water. As it goes through there, it gets a shot of the chemicals - aluminum and cationic polymer," he says.

In another basin, spinning metal paddles slow the water down so that sediment can collect in grids below. Another basin trickles the strained water through jagged metal pans.

The treated water is then sent through pipes large enough for a person to crawl through. About 2,000 residents in local communities and the nearby Sioux reservation are already getting this water, but there's roughly 4,000 more kilometers of pipeline to build, and more than 50,000 more residents to serve. The project is about two-thirds complete, at a cost of more than $200 million. It was authorized to be completed by 2008, and planners estimate they need about $40 million a year to stay on track.

But this year, the Bush administration recommended funding of less than $7 million. According to South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, that's enough to end construction just on the edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the community the project was originally intended to help.

"I'm very frustrated that the president seems to think that we have hundreds of billions of dollars available for Wall Street tax cuts, but apparently nothing for completion of our water agenda which would in fact, spur the economy across much of South Dakota," he says.

For Senator Johnson, the priorities of rural developers don't seem to mesh with those of administration officials. But Orville Langdeau Jr., vice chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, some of this may be about politics. Last year's South Dakota Senate race drew enough Indian voters to help Democrat Johnson defeat President Bush's handpicked challenger, John Thune. Mr. Langdeau says some tribal members think the cut in pipeline funding stems from that defeat.

"And we're hoping that that's not the reason for it," he said. "But politics is a strange game in itself, and I hope that the people in Washington will not forget the whole purpose of Mni Wiconi, and will rethink their decisions as far as funding."

Federal officials say the funding will be re-considered when project managers set up a more efficient and accountable budget.

The cutback and the fight to restore funding means delays in construction, making the water that does flow through the completed sections of pipe even more sweet.

Anita Ecoffey, acting director of the Oglala Sioux tribe's rural water system, recalls one elder's reaction to having clean water in her home after waiting a decade. "And it's somethin' to see and hear, when you hear one of those elderly people up there, who wasn't old 10 years ago, now they're getting the water," she said. "When she stood there, and she turned her tap on, and she cried."

There are high hopes among other tribal members that clean water will flow from their taps, too. State officials say Congressional committees have approved $26 million for the Mni Wiconi pipeline in an energy and spending bill, which could be on the president's desk this fall. If signed, it would bring the pipeline closer to "Indian Country," and residents further from relying on water trucks and the kindness of neighbors to get a drink of water.