US agency offers $307 million for rural water projects


OHKAY OWINGEH PUEBLO, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue up to $307 million in grants and low-interest loans in an effort to modernize rural water infrastructure, officials announced Wednesday.

“Every community needs safe, reliable and modern water and wastewater systems,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement ahead of a tour at a small wastewater treatment plant run by an Indigenous tribe in New Mexico.

The grants are aimed at towns with less than 10,000 people in 34 states and the territory of Puerto Rico.

In New Mexico, the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo north of Santa Fe will receive a $610,000 loan and a $1.6 million grant to improve its wastewater treatment plant. Federal officials say it will allow the tribe to extend service to over 1,000 residents who are disconnected by treating 33% more water each day.

Vilsack was scheduled to tour the treatment plant with Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who serves a majority Hispanic and Native American district.

“The consequences of decades of disinvestment in physical infrastructure have fallen most heavily on communities of color. This is why USDA is investing in water infrastructure in rural and Tribal communities that need it most to help them build back better, stronger and more equitably than ever before,” Vilsack said.

The announcement is part of a multi-state push by President Joe Biden and his administration to gain more support for a $973 billion infrastructure package that includes more than a half-trillion dollars in new spending.

Among some minority communities, Vilsack has been the target of criticism for how he handled discrimination complaints during his tenure as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration.

African American farmers were angered by his appointment by Biden due to an unaddressed flurry of civil rights complaints. But in March, Vilsack announced a program that would forgive the debts of ranchers of color.

A coalition of Hispanic and Native American cattle ranchers in New Mexico complained in 2015 that they were being discriminated against through arbitrary revocations of grazing permits, concerns validated by a report from the agency’s Office of Compliance, Policy, Training and Cultural Transformation.

One of them still blames the agency for the death of his cows a decade ago.

“I had to liquidate 250 animals overnight,” said Dave Sanchez, 61, of Chama, north of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

He says that during the Obama administration Vilsack turned down many requests to meet and address the concerns of a large group of cattle ranchers in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

“We’re really disappointed in Vilsack for what he did in the Obama administration. I don’t know why he’s coming to New Mexico. He didn’t want to meet with Hispanic ranchers. He shunned us,” Sanchez said Tuesday after learning of the visit.

The agency did not respond to requests for comment on the outcome of the complaints.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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