Indian Irrigation Projects:

Numerous Issues Need to Be Addressed to Improve Project Management and Financial Sustainability

GAO-06-314: Published: Feb 24, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 27, 2006.

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The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) manages 16 irrigation projects on Indian reservations in the western United States. These projects, which were generally constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, include water storage facilities and delivery structures for agricultural purposes. Serious concerns have arisen about their maintenance and management. GAO was asked to examine (1) BIA's estimated deferred maintenance cost for its 16 irrigation projects, (2) what shortcomings, if any, exist in BIA's current management of its irrigation projects, and (3) any issues that need to be addressed to determine the long-term direction of BIA's irrigation program.

BIA estimated the cost for deferred maintenance at its 16 irrigation projects at about $850 million for 2005, although the agency is in the midst of refining this estimate. BIA acknowledges that this estimate is a work in progress, in part, because some projects incorrectly counted new construction items as deferred maintenance. To further refine its estimate, BIA plans to hire engineering and irrigation experts to conduct thorough condition assessments of all 16 irrigation projects to correctly identify deferred maintenance needs and costs. BIA's management of some of its irrigation projects has serious shortcomings that undermine effective decisionmaking about project operations and maintenance. First, under BIA's organizational structure, officials with the authority to oversee irrigation project managers generally lack the technical expertise needed to do so effectively, while the staff that have the expertise lack the necessary authority. Second, despite federal regulations that require BIA to consult with project stakeholders in setting project priorities, BIA has not consistently provided project stakeholders with the necessary information or opportunities to participate in project decisionmaking. The long-term direction of BIA's irrigation program depends on the resolution of several larger issues. Of most importance, BIA does not know to what extent its irrigation projects are capable of financially sustaining themselves, which hinders its ability to address long-standing concerns regarding inadequate funding. Information on financial sustainability, along with accurate deferred maintenance information, are two critical pieces of information that are needed to have a debate on the long-term direction of BIA's irrigation program. Once this information is available, the Congress and interested parties will be able to address how the deferred maintenance will be funded and whether entities other than BIA could more appropriately manage some or all of the projects.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the ongoing management of the projects in the short-term, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to provide the necessary level of technical support for project managers who have less than the desired level of engineering qualifications by putting these projects under the direct supervision of regional or central irrigation office staff or by implementing more stringent protocols for engineer review and approval of actions taken at the projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Acting Director of BIA implemented this recommendation on July 21, 2006. Specifically, he directed each Regional Director responsible for irrigation projects that generate revenue to personally ensure that irrigation staff meet twice annually, at a minimum, with its water users and other stakeholders-once at the end of the season and once before the next season. For projects that operate year-round, the project managers in consultation with project water users will determine mutually acceptable times for holding these two annual meetings. At these meetings, BIA's irrigation project managers and irrigation staff will provide information on project operations, including budget plans and actual annual expenditures, and obtain feedback and input. This policy change was documented and publicized in the April 20, 2007 Federal Register and BIA irrigation project managers are additionally required to submit documentation that these meetings have indeed taken place to BIA's Office of Trust Services, Division of Natural Resources, Branch of Irrigation, Power and Safety of Dams.

    Recommendation: To improve the ongoing management of the projects in the short-term, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to require, at a minimum, that irrigation project management meet twice annually with all project stakeholders--once at the end of a season and once before the next season--to provide information on project operations, including budget plans and actual annual expenditures, and to obtain feedback and input.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Director of BIA implemented this recommendation on February 9, 2007. Specifically, he issued a technical review and assistance policy directive to the relevant Regional Directors to ensure adequate review and assistance is given to project managers of BIA's irrigation projects. This policy provides strict protocols for engineer review and approval of actions taken at the projects by those with the necessary engineering expertise. This policy memo outlines specific responsibilities for Irrigation Project Managers as well as the Regional Irrigation Engineer and the Chief, Division of Irrigation, Power and Safety of Dams (the unit referred to as the "central irrigation office" in the our report). This policy change will be included in the next update of Section 1.5 of Part 50 Indian Affairs Manual, Irrigation and Power.

    Recommendation: To obtain information on the long-term financial sustainability of each of the projects, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs to conduct studies to determine both how much it would cost to financially sustain each project, and the extent to which water users on each project have the ability to pay these costs. This information will be useful to congressional decisionmakers and other interested parties in debating the long-term direction of BIA's irrigation program.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior provided GAO with a memo in June 2008 stating that, while they agree studies to assess the financial sustainability of the irrigation projects would be valuable, it does not have sufficient funding to perform these studies--and does not expect to have such funding in the foreseeable future.

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