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SALT LAKE CITY — Washington, D.C., extended two olive branches to the Navajo Nation Tuesday, with President Joe Biden signing a major disaster declaration to help with the reservation's COVID-19 response and Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introducing legislation aimed at expanding access to drinking water on tribal nations around the country.
The disaster declaration will free up federal resources and reimburse emergency funds used to fight COVID-19, a move that Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called "a great step forward" toward curbing a virus that has claimed 1,032 lives on the reservation as of Tuesday.
The declaration will support the Navajo Nation's vaccine distribution, medical staffing and requests for resources and equipment.
"Our administration has advocated for the declaration for quite some time, so we are very appreciative of the quick response from the Biden-Harris administration," Nez said in a statement Tuesday, noting that he and Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer met with White House officials Sunday to ask for additional COVID-19 vaccines and reaffirm their request for the declaration.
"We are very pleased with today's announcement," said Lizer. "We have many of our Navajo people who are struggling not only with resources, but with the toll that the pandemic has taken on their mental and spiritual health."
Meanwhile the bipartisan legislation rolled out by Romney and Sinema Tuesday would funnel $1.3 billion toward the Sanitation Facilities Construction Program in an effort to support water and sanitation projects for the country's tribal communities.
Navajo Nation has some of the highest #COVID19 infection rates in the country—due largely to a lack of infrastructure. Our bill addresses this issue by authorizing the construction & renovation of water & sewer sanitation facilities in Native communities. https://t.co/usTMQy4TUH— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) February 3, 2021
Roughly 30 percent of residents on the Navajo Nation lack access to running water and adequate sanitation, a reality that experts say is behind the reservation's high per-capita rate of coronavirus infections.
"With some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, the Navajo Nation faces a dire situation — due in large part to a lack of water infrastructure and sanitation facilities," Romney said in a press release. "Our legislation will address this issue head on by authorizing the construction and renovation of water and sewer sanitation facilities in Native (American) communities in Utah and throughout the country."
The proposed legislation seeks to build on the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, which unanimously passed the Senate in June and "settles a decadeslong negotiation among the Navajo Nation, federal government, and the state of Utah over water rights for Utah Navajos," according to Romney's office.
The bill gives the Navajo Nation rights to 81,500 acre-feet of water each year from its Colorado River Basin apportionment, authorizes $210 million in funding for water infrastructure on Utah's side of the reservation and requires the Beehive State to contribute $8 million towards the settlement.
The bill was included in a $2.3 trillion omnibus appropriations package signed by former President Donald Trump in December.
On March 11, days before its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the Navajo Nation declared a public health state of emergency that still remains in effect today.