Tribes Struggling To Maintain BIA and Tribal Roads-Officials Say They’re Underfunded
Roads and highways around the state are in rough shape - with some still flooded from heavy rains and last winter’s ice melt. Reservation roads face the same challenges but some tribal leaders say they don't have the money to make required fixes.
“I’m here at Lake Andes next to highway 18. The afternoon sun is glistening off water that’s covered up a good stretch of the highway. Sandbags are piled up in some sections to try and keep the water from reaching anymore of the town. The Yankton Sioux Tribe says flooding like this has been a problem in the area for months.”
Bonnie Zephier is the tribe’s Transportation Planner. She says the problems started with a heavy rainfall in December that turned to ice.
“All the culverts were frozen shut. So when we got the rain in March it just didn’t have any place to go so it just went over the roads. Highway 46 here was closed two or three times throughout this whole rain season.”
A large part of the Yankton Sioux Reservation runs just north of the Missouri River. It’s a checkerboard of reservation, state and private land. What it all has in common, is too much water. This year, Zephier says storms in March, April and September raised water levels in Lake Andes and flooded land and a number of BIA roads.
“At one time we had three roads closed at once, and that’s nothing compared to other tribes after we heard about it but two are closed now.”
High water flooded two residential walkways, forcing residents near Lake Andes to walk next to fast moving highway traffic.
Also near the lake, BIA route 12 28 includes a section of road in between highway 50 and a county owned road.
The state raised highway 50 by four feet this summer to prevent even more flooding. But then another storm pushed Lake Andes water levels high enough to cover even the newly constructed section of highway 50.
Zephier says the tribe was able to do some emergency repairs, but needs reimbursement or emergency funding for larger projects-like rebuilding walkways and roads.
“So right away we started doing weekly natural event reporting to the BIA. And that was on all the damage and how much we expended or how much was needed. And they were supposed to try and find emergency funding for tribes.”
And by April, the reports estimated road damage that totaled around 100 thousand dollars. The number is higher now.
Zephier says the Great Plains regional Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn’t have enough money to fix all of the damage to the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s BIA routes. The Bureau is responsible for maintaining BIA roads for all tribes.
The tribe has requested emergency repair funds from the federal government. But Zephier says some tribes have been waiting nearly a year and a half for reimbursement. And tribes with less money, like Cheyenne River, can’t pay for emergency repairs upfront. In those cases, the work doesn’t get done until the money comes in.
Louis Golus Jr. is with Yankton Sioux Tribe’s road maintenance department. He says the BIA did provide one hundred thousand dollars when flooding started affecting tribal member’s housing.
“That’s been spent on berms and materials and what not and pumps. I’m not sure how much money that have left but I’m pretty sure it’s probably expended.”
Golus says three families near Lake Andes have had to move and they’re watching water levels for eight more houses. He says nearby BIA roads are also affected.
“It started to subside a little but then we got this other big rainstorm and it’s still under water. So it’s actually farther underwater then it was the first time it flooded.”
Flooding in the area has been relentless this year. Genevieve Giaccardo is the Communications Coordinator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Washington D.C. Office.
In an email she writes that the BIA has been working with tribes on road damage this year because of unprecedented amounts of rain. The BIA receives funding through a Congressional appropriations process, Giaccardo says the agency is working to locate emergency funding for repairs.
She says tribes establish priorities for road maintenance and replacement, and the BIA supports those projects as money is available. However, because of the weather’s unpredictability, sometimes priorities need to shift.
George Gueruw Sr. has been the Director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Road Maintenance Department for about 20 years. He says the roads are a constant problem.
“Some of it is infrastructure problems. Some of the roads are built so far back the drainage and stuff on them was not quite right. But a lot of it was due to lack of maintenance that should have been done on the road.”
Gueruw has been scraping together money for equipment and repairs his whole career. He says they even use their own equipment to help other tribes repair roads.
“We started to build that up and since that time we started to do a lot of the maintenance that should have been done way back when. But we just didn't have the money, equipment or material to do it.”
Each year, the federal government allocates a set amount of money for tribes that’s based on their size and enrollment. Rosebud gets about 3.5 million dollars and Yankton-nearly one million. The tribe allocates some of that money directly to local BIA to maintain roads.
“That wasn’t enough, it never was and still isn’t enough.”
Gueruw says grant programs and other forms of federal funding allow the tribe maintain roads and BIA routes.
He says BIA does inspections of roads and bridges-many of which were installed about 30 years ago. The BIA recently replaced three bridges and Gueruw says two more were scheduled for replacement this year. But before construction started, heavy flooding washed the road out near one and collapsed part of another. The tribe paid for repairs from its annual federal funding.
“So we ate the cost with that and we’re running a little short now because the funding is still late coming in so we’re kind of skimping along right now.”
The results of a wet year are even evident in the BIA owned transportation office. Gueruw says they’ve had to do emergency roof repairs themselves with road tar to prevent indoor flooding. And, they’re bracing for another wet year.