WHITERIVER — The White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) has been working for over 40 years to get a rural water system developed. Now, once again, they are embarking on an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), seeking comments and alternatives to the proposed action that can be considered and analyzed in the EIS. The deadline for input from Tribal members and the general public is May 19.
When a proposed major Federal action is expected to have significant impacts on the quality of the human environment, a federal agency prepares an EIS.
Resources likely to be considered for the EIS include such things as water resources; soils and geology; biological and cultural resources; Indian Trust Assets; transportation; socioeconomics; air quality; climate change; noise; land use; visual resources; hazardous materials and waste; utilities and infrastructure.
The effects of the proposed action on the resource areas will be considered in the EIS and the range of issues and alternatives addressed may be expanded or reduced based on comments received in response to public scoping.
The U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation — Lower Colorado Region as lead agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the WMAT are the cooperating agencies that will prepare the EIS which will evaluate the environmental impacts of constructing and operating the WMAT Rural Water System. The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) is in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is the lead agency because of its statutory requirement to implement the Proposed Action.
At the request of the WMAT, a Federal Negotiation Team was appointed for the Tribe in 2004 by the U.S. Secretary of Interior. In 2009, the WMAT Water Rights Quantification Agreement was formally approved by the Tribal council and others affected in the Salt River Valley and towns situated along the Tribe’s northern boundary. The U.S. Congress confirmed the Agreement in the WMAT Water Rights Quantification Act of 2010 (the Act).
It was in the Act that Reclamation was directed to plan, design, and construct the work for the WMAT rural water system. The proposal includes constructing a dam and storage reservoir on the North Fork of the White River, enlarging an existing diversion and pumping plant, upgrading an existing water treatment plant and constructing a water distribution system that would include 50 miles of new water transmission pipeline to the communities of Whiteriver, Fort Apache, Canyon Day, Cedar Creek, Carrizo, and Cibecue. The Act also provides for operation of the completed system by Reclamation for three years following construction, after which WMAT would own, operate and maintain the water system.
In non-COVID-19 times, a public scoping meeting would ordinarily take place to present an overview of the project and allow people to ask questions and make comments. Still in a pandemic, in the interest of safety, a virtual scoping meeting was held using a Facebook live format in conjunction with WMAT Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood’s Saturday live program. Special guests included WMAT Rural Water System Project Manager Cheryl Pailzote, part of the initial negotiating team and Bureau of Reclamation Project Manager Dominic Graziani.
People were able to ask questions and make comments during the program using Chat.
Graziani said they encourage, and it is important, for people to go to the website to get more information and to comment online or mail in their comments in so they can be heard. He said there will be another opportunity during the draft EIS period for an in person question and comment period if there is a safe environment at that time.
Pailzote, in a slide presentation, provided a history of the project in English while Lee-Gatewood followed each slide in Apache.
Pailzote said they have been working for decades towards developing a reliable and high quality water supply. She said that some people say that their water has been tasting like corn and in Carrizo the water is often black because of the manganese in it.
“For over 40 years WMAT has been working to get safe drinking water for our people. We are looking forward to the day when everybody can turn on a faucet wherever they are living to get clean, reliable drinking water everywhere in the United States. We have water but there are some pockets within the country that do not have access to clean drinking water and we are one of them,” said Lee-Gatewood.
Encouraging young Apaches to get their education and learn skills that could be used to construct the Minor Flat Dam, Lee-Gatewood said, “Water is sacred. You are sacred. You are not one in million, but once in a life time.”
The anticipated project schedule currently for the EIS Scoping which closes on May 19 is; the release of the Draft EIS is January, 2022; Draft EIS Public Comment Period, January – March 2022; Release of Final EIS, End of 2022; ROD, January 2023 and construction, 2024 – 2027.
The project website is https://www.wmat-rws-eis.com. There is also a link on this site to the Facebook meeting which aired on Saturday, May 1, There are two version, one in Apache and one in English. Presentation materials are also on the website. For those that prefer to mail in their comments, the address is Dominic Graziani, Phoenix Area Office, Bureau of Reclamation, 6150 W. Thunderbird Rd., Glendale, AZ 85306-4001 or his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. May 19 is the deadline.