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Lack of utilities hinders Indians

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WASHINGTON — Indian Country needs nearly $1.6 billion in water, sewer and waste disposal systems, and the problem undermines efforts to build quality housing on reservations, housing advocates said Friday.

"The basic fact is that when the rest of the West was hooked up to electrical, phone, water and sewer lines, Indian Country was simply left out," said Russell Sossamon, chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council.

The council released findings of a report that outlined the infrastructure needs and found bureaucratic obstacles to improving services. The report also said struggling reservation economies provide little capital to invest in utilities.

Between 18,000 and 19,000 homes on reservations lack safe drinking water and adequate waste disposal, said Assistant Surgeon General Gary Hartz, acting director of the Indian Health Service office of public health.

He said roughly $1 billion of the need is in Alaska and the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the country.

Sossamon, executive director of the Choctaw Nation Housing Authority in Oklahoma, said it's an investment worth making.

"If we don't improve our water and sewer infrastructure, the increasing costs of health care alone is going to far outweigh the investment to bring the amount of infrastructure up to an adequate level," he said.

The Bush administration has requested a 20 percent increase in spending for Indian housing programs, said Hartz.

He said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson "is well aware of the disparity of health that exists in Indian Country and is well aware of the needs to improve the infrastructure."

The report also identified steps Indian tribes can take to encourage utility development, including making sure building codes are in place, finding money for environmental assessments and finding local funding sources.