Native water supplies

Native water supplies. Photo courtesy Mark Robak of Otay Water District.

It can be taken for granted that when you turn on your faucet, clean drinking water will come out at any time, day or night. 

That's not true if you live on one of many Native American reservations, including in southwestern Colorado, home to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. 

Depending on where a Native family may live, they may not even have indoor plumbing at all, much less clean drinking water.

The water in many tribal communities fails to meet clean drinking water standards, often containing arsenic, manganese or iron in levels unsafe for human consumption.

According to Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School's Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, nothing exemplifies the need for equity and diversity inclusion more than what's happened during the pandemic. And that extends to the tribal communities where COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted both American Indian and Alaskan Indian communities, according to the Indian Health Service, a branch of the federal government.

Getches, speaking to the Colorado Water Congress on its first day Tuesday in Steamboat Springs, said tribal communities are 19 times more likely than white households to lack access to clean water and indoor plumbing. That's been exacerbated by the pandemic, she said. Getches pointed to the federal infrastructure bill, which has incorporated legislation sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. and John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., to improve tribal access to clean water. 

That bill contains $6.7 billion to address long-standing neglect by the federal government over the drinking water issue on reservations. 

Castle recently said the promise made by the federal government was that tribal lands would be a permanent livable homeland, "and you don't have a livable homeland if you don't have clean running water."

Heather Tanana, a professor at the University of Utah Law School and Dine, and Jaime Garcia, a fellow at the CU Law School, recently conducted a study on clean water for tribal communities. There's a strong correlation between COVID-19 and the lack of indoor plumbing, Garcia said, adding that their data showed race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.

"This was a shock even to me," Garcia told the Water Congress. "I'm used to see rural systems poorly run. But it's not your location, it's race that determines whether you have access to clean water," which he called a human rights issue.

Tanana said they found that 30% to 40% of the Navajo nation homes do not have piped water delivery, and in a time of COVID-19, "you can't wash your hands without indoor plumbing."

On the Southern Ute reservation, 64 tribal households don't have water infrastructure, so they pick up their water at a water hauling station. 

Inadequate water quality is also a huge problem in Indian country, Tanana said. The Indian Health Service set up access points for water, but what came out was brown, due to high iron levels. 

For example, water in Hopi communities have naturally occurring arsenic. Drinking water in the Ute Mountain Ute reservation also has unsafe levels of arsenic, and high levels of sulphur, iron and manganese.

Another issue, according to Garcia, is that even when there's water infrastructure, it's often neglected and inadequate to serve the community, and it also doesn't account for future growth. That also leads to contamination in the pipes when they deteriorate. 

Garcia pointed to the problems of the Southern Utes with the water at Lake Nighthorse, in southwestern Colorado. The Southern Ute tribe has access to 38,000 acre-feet of water, but they don't have the infrastructure nor the economic resources to do so.

Garcia called the lack of funding for operation and maintenance the biggest challenge, and that there's very few programs that support it. 

The Indian Health Service is authorized to support operation and maintenance projects but Congress has never appropriated any funds to do it, he said. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has technical assistance available to tribes, it's premised on having certified water operators, which many tribes don't have, much less a formal water utilities department. So that technical assistance is useless, he indicated.

Garcia and Tanana said the solution is to require the federal government to live up to its commitment to creating drinking water for these permanent homelands. It should recognize that water should be available to all Americans, regardless of race, ethnic group or where they live. 

A slate of legislation in Congress plus efforts from the Biden administration could begin that commitment, they contend. That includes a resolution from Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse that recognizes the importance of access to clean water for Native Americans; several presidential orders on tribal consultation and improving nation-to-nation relationships, and the Bennet legislation that has been incorporated into the infrastructure bill. 

This will take a "whole government approach," Garcia said. 

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