Santee Sioux Nation makes progress on water pipeline as bottled water grant funding runs out

Nov. 20, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Beach visited the Santee Sioux Nation this fall while reporting on the reservation's lack of safe drinking water. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

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Northern Nebraska’s Santee Sioux Reservation is still without safe drinking water after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a no-drink order in 2019.

But in recent weeks, some progress has been made.

The Santee Sioux tribal council voted to pursue funding for a pipeline bringing clean water from South Dakota in September, but several bureaucratic and financial hurdles need to be cleared before safe drinking water becomes a reality in Santee once more.

Earlier this month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a preliminary engineering report for the pipeline.

Now, Clint Powell, a civil engineer for the tribe, is working on an environmental report, which he expects to complete by next spring.

“It depends on how cantankerous the feds are,” Powell said. “On this one, my hope is that we're through that process sometime in March.”

Once the report is approved, the tribe can formally request funding for the $40 million project from the USDA, EPA and U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Powell said the tribe is open to working with other communities in Nebraska and South Dakota that want to connect to the pipeline, but the current proposal is limited to Santee.

“Right now we're really focused on the emergency portion of the project,”
Powell said. “And then that phase two will be the expansion to the non tribal communities.”

The U.S. House recently approved an appropriations bill that includes an earmark for $1.75 million dollars toward the Santee’s water infrastructure.

That earmark was added by Congressman Adrian Smith, who represents Santee’s district in the House of Representatives. Smith visited Santee in August 2023, where he met with tribal leadership and heard about the tribe’s water crisis.

Fred Starzyk, a government affairs strategist who works with the Santee tribe, said the House version of the appropriations bill is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Starzyk said Congress typically passes an omnibus spending bill right before Christmas that incorporates aspects of the House and Senate appropriations bills and he is working to ensure funding for the Santee is included.

“We just have to make sure that that language gets into the omnibus appropriations bill at the end of the year,” Starzyk said.

In the meantime, the tribe is using grant money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ship pallets of bottled water to the reservation.

Santee Tribal Vice Chairman Kameron Runnels said that money is likely to run out by the end of the year.

The tribe plans to buy water for the community for three to six months after the grant money is exhausted, but Runnels said the cost makes it a poor short-term solution.

“We're gonna have to start paying for that bottled water here on our own. And, you know, that's a lot of money. That's like, I think 6, 7,000 dollars every shipment.”

Runnels anticipates that there will be a need for bottled water on the reservation until the new pipeline is built — a process that could take several years — and he welcomes donations from outside groups, as long as they call the tribal office before donating.

“It takes a little bit of planning, you know, and it's just not, ‘you get a bunch of water and then just set it out somewhere’,” Runnels said. “You can't just do that.”

You can reach the Santee Sioux Nation by calling (402) 857-2302.