White House spending targets social justice; vague criteria | State and Region

WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) — This once bustling northern Arizona town has a troubled relationship with rain. Winslow needs it, but just a little can overwhelm a levee system that officials have been begging the federal government for years to fix.

Local officials believe a push by the Biden administration to fund projects that help disadvantaged communities has given them an edge this year. The US Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that $65 million will go to the Winslow Flood Control Project.

“Until they were able to introduce criteria that recognized other social effects and the socio-economic level of communities and environmental impacts, it was just a numbers game,” said the Navajo County Director of Public Works, John Osgood. “And until you can get to a certain level, you’re not going to be competitive, you’re not going to receive funding.”

President Joe Biden pledged last year that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in areas such as climate change that can increase flood risk would go to disadvantaged communities, including those with high rates of poverty and unemployment. The White House is calling the effort Justice40.

The Biden administration recently announced $14 billion in spending on environmental restoration and infrastructure projects like the one in Winslow, where most residents are Native American or Hispanic, the median household income is less than $38,000 a year. year and a quarter of the inhabitants live in poverty. They say the spending is in line with Justice40 but did not detail how.

Indeed, some of the Justice40 rules are still being written, raising concerns about how the administration is applying the policy and whether it is being applied in a way that delivers on its promises. Not even Winslow and the wider Navajo County know how the math works.

“There has to be accountability where we look back and say, ‘How well have we achieved this goal? Said Natalie Snider of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Two-thirds of Winslow — including a hospital, nursing homes, schools and utilities — lie in a floodplain after the Federal Emergency Management Agency decertified a levee in 2008. Massive flooding could affect an Interstate 40 bridge and a rail line over the Little Colorado River that carries $35 billion worth of goods destined for the West Coast.

And the corner of Route 66 made famous by the Eagles song “Take it Easy,” with the phrase “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” would look more like a creek than a sidewalk in a flood. , the city said.

Historically, environmental justice has been used in reviews of federal projects to assess potential harm to an underprivileged community. Biden’s executive order on Justice40 directs federal agencies to consider how their decisions and spending can benefit communities that have been ignored.

Typically, the Corps considers factors such as property damage prevention and job creation when evaluating the benefits and costs of projects. In the infrastructure bill, Congress said proposals that benefit disadvantaged communities should be prioritized for certain projects in areas such as flood mitigation.

The Corps’ $14 billion funding includes the levee project in Winslow, restoration of native riparian habitat in New Mexico’s Espanola Valley that is heavily Hispanic and Native American, and work on a channel tide across San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is clogged with trash and debris.

Estrella D. Santiago Pérez, environmental affairs manager for a group that has long lobbied for Puerto Rico’s dredging project, said federal funding of $163 million will help improve the health of the bay’s estuary. from San Juan. It will also improve the living conditions of residents near the Martín Peña Canal who suffer when frequent flooding sends sewage-infested water into their homes. Some residents have to move.

What is less clear is to what extent social, environmental or economic justice plays a role in funding decisions. The Office of Management and Budget issued draft guidance to federal agencies last July and said a final version was in the works.

On Friday, the Biden administration released a preliminary tool that identifies disadvantaged communities that should benefit from Justice40. This tool, which takes into account factors such as poverty rates and a community’s sensitivity to climate change, identifies Winslow as a disadvantaged community. It does not include race as a factor. Officials say it was designed to withstand a possible legal challenge.

The Biden administration is still developing dashboards to track how well agencies are performing Justice40.

“Until that happens, we cannot judge the Biden-Harris administration,” said Kyle Whyte, a professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Rural counties such as Navajo and Santa Cruz in California have lobbied for years to make social justice more of an Army Corps funding factor so that projects in disadvantaged communities are more competitive.

“It’s not fully factored into the calculation yet,” said Mark Strudley, Santa Cruz County flood control officer.

Strudley cited a largely migrant workforce, large Spanish-speaking population, and rising poverty rate as reasons why the federal government should fund a flood control project near the Pajaro River.

The project in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties received a boost last year when the state decided to fund all non-federal costs, but it was not among the latest recipients of Corps funding. of army.

Local officials also said poor, small and rural communities are struggling without the resources they need for their studies.

“The communities you most want to help are the communities that have the least ability to compete for money,” said Colin Wellenkamp, ​​executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative.

Even with funding granted, local sponsors sometimes have to scramble to share the costs.

In Arizona, Navajo County and Winslow must assume 35% of the design and construction cost of the levee project, or $35 million. The city has savings and is exploring other options, but does not want to impose additional taxes on residents, City Manager John Barkley said.

The decertification of the Winslow Dike that stretches for miles along the Little Colorado River has forced some residents to purchase flood insurance. FEMA data showed the Winslow zip code has more than 250 active policies.

If a 100-year flood hit Winslow, up to 10 feet (3 meters) of water could inundate some areas, putting public safety and health at risk, according to an Army Corps study published in 2018.

The Little Colorado River has a life of its own, taking different paths as it carries heavy sediment and debris from flooding. Residents have built seawalls over the years using old cars, dirt and cement.

“That river, you can’t tell it which way to go,” said Virgil Nez, who is Navajo and lives nearby. “Every year it changes.”

Elderly residents, children and a group of Navajo and Hopi the federal government moved to Winslow decades ago amid a land dispute between the two tribes are the most vulnerable to flooding and would have the most struggling to recover, according to the city and county.

The weather boost associated with climate change could lead to more frequent flooding, said Osgood, the county’s director of public works. Local officials plan to install an alarm that will sound across the city if the river overflows while they work on the levee system.

“We’ve been fighting for this for a long time, so as soon as we can start, we will,” Osgood said.

Fonseca writes about Native American tribes on the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP. Phillis reported from St. Louis. The Associated Press is supported by the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment

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Elna M. Lemons