Mni Wiconi water reaching Pine Ridge reservation

By Chet Brokaw
Wanblee, South Dakota (AP) 8-08

The giant Mni Wiconi water project will reduce chronic health problems linked to contaminated water on the Pine Ridge Reservation, officials said Aug. 20 in a ceremony marking a milestone in the project’s construction.

“I’d like to tell you what the water project means to Pine Ridge. It is going to affect the health of our future generations here on the Pine Ridge,” said Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele. “Not only that, it going to help with our economic development.”

Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, along with state and federal officials and others, gathered for a ceremony that marked the first delivery of piped Missouri River water to the Pine Ridge reservation. The tribe has already built some pipelines, which use well water to replace contaminated water from older sources.

Mni Wiconi, which means “water is life” in the Lakota language, started two decades ago when tribal members reached a deal to become part of a rural water system being planned for non-Indian communities in western South Dakota.

High levels of contaminants have contributed to a high infant mortality rate and other health problems on the Pine Ridge reservation, Steele said in a ceremony that started and ended with traditional Lakota singing and drum playing in the Crazy Horse High School gymnasium.

“This is a historic moment,” Steele said.

Steele and other speakers said the project also has led to better cooperation and understanding among American Indians and non-Indians because the reservation and white communities had to work together to get it approved and built.

“Mni Wiconi brings life to many Indians and non-Indians alike. It is really this shared effort we share today,” said Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux, whose reservation already has received river water.

The Aug. 20 ceremony featured speeches by Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune, Gov. Mike Rounds, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Robert Johnson, tribal leaders and others. The commissioner, the senators, the governor and others received star quilts to honor their work on the project.

The head of the Bureau of Reclamation said his agency is committed to seeing the massive water project completed by the 2013 target date.

“We will continue to support this project. We want to get it done. We want to see everybody on the reservation get water,” Johnson said

The commissioner said the cooperation and leadership of federal, state and tribal officials will leave the next generation a better standard of living on the reservation. 


Officials estimated spending on the Mni Wiconi Rural Water System will reach $364 million this year, with the total cost of the 4,200-mile pipeline system to reach about $450 million by the time it is completed. The federal government is paying the whole cost for reservations and 80 percent of the non-reservation portion.

The project is considered 80 percent complete now, with the rest to consist of small-diameter pipes that will deliver water to people.

It is designed to provide good quality water to more than 50,000 people in nine counties and three American Indian reservations west of the Missouri River. The project stretches from Fort Pierre, where Missouri River water is treated and pumped into a pipeline, to the Pine Ridge reservation, parts of which are more than 200 miles from the treatment plant.

The pipeline has been serving some areas for years but now is ready to begin delivering river water to the Pine Ridge reservation. Water already is reaching the Lower Brule and Rosebud reservations.

Congress authorized the project two decades ago to deliver clean water to the three reservations and other western South Dakota communities that lacked good quality water.

The West River-Lyman-Jones Rural Water System, which is distributing water to non-Indian communities, began building some project components in the early 1990s. The intake and water treatment plant on the Missouri River started pumping water into the system by 2002, and the core line had been extended by late last year to Murdo and Kadoka.

Steele said South Dakota’s congressional delegation has done a good job of securing federal money for the project, but he said Johnson in particular has made sure Congress approved and funded it. Johnson was in the House when Congress first authorized Mni Wiconi.

“He’s the main person who got this water to Pine Ridge,” Steele said of the Democratic senator.

Johnson, running for re-election and still undergoing speech and physical therapy to recover from bleeding in his brain that occurred in December 2006, said people have waited a long time to get good water on the reservation. A lot of work remains to complete the project, he said.

“I am honored to be walking with you step by step as we finish the journey,” the senator said.

Thune said Mni Wiconi is important because good water, the lifeblood of the economy, will be provided to the Pine Ridge reservation. He said he understands the area’s need for safe drinking water because he grew up in nearby Murdo.

Thune said the congressional delegation works together with state and tribal officials to make sure the project is funded each year. “That’s the kind of effort it takes.”

South Dakota’s lone U.S. House member, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, could not attend the ceremony because she took part in a campaign debate Wednesday. In a statement, she said she would continue to do her part “to secure the appropriations needed to complete the Mni Wiconi project.”

Rounds said the ceremony marked the hard work done by many people to give their children and grandchildren better lives.

Frank Means, an Oglala Sioux Tribe official who has been working on Mni Wiconi since the project was first proposed, said Indian and non-Indians learned how to work together as they pushed the water system.

“This is a way how we can get together in South Dakota, between the Indians and the non-Indians,” Means said.

Lower Brule Sioux President Mike Jandreau agreed.

“The value that is probably far beyond even the water is the value of being able to tie together a body of people whose diversity is so great,” Jandreau said. “We need to continue the lesson that has taught for South Dakota to be what it really can be.”