Flooding weakens Kickapoo dam, creating new water crisis 6-7-07

KICKAPOO RESERVATION, Kan. (AP) - Already in federal court over water issues, the Kickapoo tribe faces a new threat to its water supply, and its leaders vented their frustration Thursday during a meeting with federal officials.

Kickapoo leaders said they fear the tribe's dam on the Delaware River will fail after being weakened last month by flooding. Without the dam, the tribe couldn't use the river for its water supply - and would have no other source other than hauling it to the reservation 45 miles northeast of Topeka.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated repairing the dam and stabilizing eroded river banks could cost $1.5 million. Flood damage represents a “direct and imminent threat” to the dam, the Corps said in a report last month.

The tribe believes the ultimate solution to its ongoing water problems is damming Plum Creek, which flows into the Delaware, creating a new reservoir. The project has been authorized by Congress since 1998 but hasn't moved forward, and last year the tribe sued 14 federal, state and local officials.

The tribe called Thursday's meeting to see what federal funds are available for repairing the dam and stabilizing the river banks. A U.S. Indian Health Service official promised that his agency will coordinate the effort at first, and representatives from several agencies said they're seeking money.

But the meeting also gave tribal leaders a chance to express their frustration over nearly three decades of ongoing water supply problems. Damon Williams, the tribe's general counsel, noted the Delaware River dam was considered a temporary solution when the tribe built it in 1978.

“Without water, no society can move forward,” Williams told the federal officials. “By consistently just Band-Aiding the problem, you are as guilty as Mother Nature itself in inflicting harm on this tribe.”

Williams said later that he thinks the tribe and federal officials made a good start toward solving the tribe's immediate problem.

But tribal Chairman Steve Cadue said the Plum Creek project is the long-term solution and, “This immediate situation just points that out.”

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and the Corps of Engineers said they're looking for funds to help. Steven Tillman, a public assistance officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said dollars could be available from FEMA if the Kickapoo reservation is included in a federal disaster declaration.

The tribe could ask Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to add it to a state declaration, or go to the federal government itself. Following storms in May - including a tornado that leveled more than 90 percent of Greensburg in Kiowa County - legislators authorized up to $25 million in disaster relief funds.

“Really, the federal government has a responsibility here,” Williams said. “We always go to the federal agencies first to find assistance.”

In recent years, drought has been the source of the Kickapoos' water woes. A little more than half of the tribe's 1,500 members live in on the reservation.

In 2001, the tribe, with federal help, added wooden planks to the top of its concrete dam to block an additional 2 feet of the river, so more water would go through an intake pipe. In 2004, the river was so low that the tribe was forced to truck in water from the Missouri River for three months.

Last year, the tribe filed its lawsuit over the Plum Creek project. It accuses local officials of not living up to a 1994 agreement to help the tribe acquire property from 12 area landowners and the state and federal officials of funding other projects that have decreased the Delaware's flow as it goes across the reservation before emptying into Perry Lake.

Local officials contend the holdup has been the tribe's refusal to grant the landowners a reasonable, higher-than-market value price for their property. The Plum Creek project would cost $5.3 million, with the tribe providing $3.2 million, or 61 percent, using revenues generated by a tribal casino.

The Plum Creek project remained ever-present issue Thursday, with Cadue wearing a Navy blue T-shirt touting the project. But the dam's weakness represents the more immediate problem.

If the dam fails, Cadue said, “A whole nation, a tribe, the Kickapoo people's economic and cultural survival would be washed away.”