By Debra Utacia Krol and Ian James
Two Democratic senators have introduced legislation that would dramatically scale up funding to build new water infrastructure in Indian Country, seeking to address a backlog of needed projects and finally bring clean drinking water to communities that have been living with scarcity and toxic contamination for generations.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, would provide about $6.7 billion for a variety of water infrastructure projects, the largest amount of additional funding to date to address the longstanding injustice of the lack of clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities across the country.
In a recent report, researchers with U.S. Water Alliance and DigDeep found that race is the “strongest predictor” of water access and that Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack complete plumbing.
“This is long overdue,” Hopi Tribe Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma said in an interview. “We are First Nations here, yet we’re the last nations to be really recognized. So it’s just an imbalance in equity.”
Max Taylor, a Hopi water resource technician, fills a bottle at a communal water source in the village of Mishongnovi on the Hopi Reservation, where many homes do not have running water. This spigot is the closest source for over 100 households in the area.
Many people in Hopi communities have tap water contaminated with toxic arsenic. Some live in homes without running water and must drive to communal wells to fill tanks for bathing and cooking.
The situation is also dire in the Navajo Nation. A report by the House Natural Resources Committee in 2016 cited estimates that 30-40% of people living in the Navajos’ 27,000-square-mile reservation have no access to running water. Many tribal members use tanks mounted on pickup trucks to haul water, often waiting in line to fill up at spigots.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez praised the new legislation, calling it “the first step to ensuring that Native people across the United States have access to clean drinking water.”
“The proposed funding will address a water crisis, create jobs, and pave the path towards social and racial equity,” Nez said in a statement.
In areas of the Navajo Nation where there are few sources of clean drinking water, some people resort to collecting water from windmill-powered wells. The report said water testing showed more than 12% of the unregulated water sources on the reservation exceeded federal drinking water standards for uranium or other radioactive contaminants, with some more than 20 times higher than the limit.
Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation in the 1940s and 1950s left behind an estimated 1,200 mine sites, along with piles of radioactive waste. Some water sources also are tainted with other hazardous contaminants such as bacteria or arsenic.
Waiting for water:On Navajo Nation, long lines, scarce resources, a cry for solutions
Tommy Rock fills water barrels at his family’s home in Oljato, Utah, on the Navajo Nation. He has heard talk about plans to lay water pipes in the area but says these plans have been discussed for so long that he has grown skeptical about the prospects of construction getting underway.
Tribes have waited decades for solutions
Efforts by tribal governments to fix and expand inadequate water systems have long been hampered by inadequate funding.
The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act would provide $3.4 billion for the federal Indian Health Service to address needs for water infrastructure projects. This would cover the agency’s existing list of projects, while also providing an additional amount to enable the agency to scale up its work.
Other funds under the bill would go toward water infrastructure programs overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Agriculture.
Heinrich said it’s shameful that many Indigenous communities, including in New Mexico, don’t have clean drinking water. Bennet called the situation unacceptable and said the comprehensive legislation would deliver solutions to “reduce this disparity.”
“Water is Life” is painted on a roadside wall over a culvert on Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. Some homes on the reservation do not have running water, and many water sources are contaminated with arsenic.
The 17,000 enrolled members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe have for decades coped with water shortages and contaminated water problems.
Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said during an April webinar on water-supply issues that tribal leaders have been trying for about 40 years to bring a new rural water system to fruition.
“Water lines are antiquated. They’re from the early 1980s, and so we have wells, and when certain areas can’t have enough water brought to them, it adds to the wells running out,” Lee-Gatewood said. “That’s been a challenge for us.”
At times, people in parts of the reservation have no water for showers or hand washing, Lee-Gatewood said. Some homes don’t have any faucets, she said, and others have water contaminated with manganese that comes out looking gray.
“It creates a serious health and safety hazard, especially for our elders,” she said. “The data clearly shows that those homes without potable water continue to suffer from infectious diseases, and especially during COVID-19.”
Legislation that passed in 2010 quantified the tribe’s water rights and authorized funding to address these water challenges, Lee-Gatewood said.
“It’s going to provide safe, dependable, secure, good-quality water supply for our communities,” Lee-Gatewood said. “But it’s years away from completion. And unfortunately this pandemic has slowed the work of the rural water system. But the tribe, we’re moving forward as expeditiously as possible.”
The Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, which represents the interests of 21 of the 22 tribes in the state, wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in June in support of funding clean water and wastewater infrastructure in Indian Country.
“The need for reliable water and wastewater infrastructure has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately impacted Indian Country,” wrote Maria Dadgar, executive director of the association. “In Arizona, the pandemic dealt a devastating blow to our Tribal communities, including the loss of Tribal members, employees and family members. By all accounts, the pandemic has had an even more disproportionate impact on Tribal communities due to inadequate access to clean drinking water and the aging infrastructure that supports water and wastewater systems on Tribal lands.”
Kayla Johnson, 17, and her brother, Terron Manuel, 10, use a windmill-powered well on July 30 to get water to bring to their home for drinking, cleaning and cooking. They live in an area of the Hopi Reservation on Second Mesa where homes don’t have access to running water.
The association’s sister organization, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, has provided technical support to tribes across the United States on drinking water and wastewater systems for more than 40 years, wrote Dadgar, an enrolled member of the Piscataway Tribe of Accokeek, Maryland. “This work has given the Inter Tribal Council’s subject matter experts keen insight into the infrastructure needs throughout Indian Country and it is clear that critical investments are required.”
Dadgar said that investing in water infrastructure is critical to ensuring the lives and safety of Native American people today and in the future.
Although the CARES Act allowed tribes to use part of the relief funding to build or repair infrastructure, huge gaps remain.
Supporters of the legislation cite estimates that 48% of homes on Native American reservations don’t have access to clean drinking water, reliable water sources or adequate sanitation.
The Indian Health Service has a $3.1 billion backlog of needed projects awaiting funding nationwide.
Calls for a ‘whole of government’ approach
“It’s a dire need and it exists all over the country,” said Anne Castle, co-leader of an initiative on Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities. “It’s a problem that has existed for decades, but it has been too frequently ignored.”
Although other legislation under discussion in Congress also would bring significant funding for clean water infrastructure, the details haven’t been working out, Castle said. She pointed out that these other bills don’t focus on the multiple agencies that address tribal water infrastructure the way the Bennet-Heinrich bill does.
The initiative on water access was started by the Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative, which Castle also helps advise.
Daryl Vigil, co-facilitator of the Water & Tribes Initiative, said the new legislation had its roots in the work of two groups: the Ten Tribes Partnership, a consortium of the tribes that border the Colorado River, and the tribal initiative, which includes the other 19 tribes whose lands lie within the Colorado River Basin.
“We recognized that there was a momentum being built already with the Ten Tribes Partnership and through a tribal water study,” which was written in 2019, said Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.
Leaders of tribes in the West have also been working to collaborate with government entities on water issues, and have sought to have their voices included in discussions aboutmanaging the Colorado River, which has been depleted by severe drought, overuse and the effects of climate change.
DigDeep’s water truck fills up to deliver water to Navajo families participating in the Navajo Water Project. The nonprofit currently supplies 300 families with either an off-grid water/solar system or bill payment assistance.
Castle said addressing the lack of clean drinking water in tribal nations is “an issue that connects all of the primary priorities of the Biden administration, on COVID recovery and economic recovery and racial equity and climate change.”
The goal through the legislation, Castle said, is to capitalize on that focus on infrastructure and racial equity “to implement solutions, real progress on the ground.”
Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. She previously worked as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science during the Obama administration.
She noted that the federal government has a special trust responsibility to Indian tribes.
“The promise was made that the tribal lands would be a permanent livable homeland, and you don’t have a livable homeland if you don’t have clean running water,” Castle said.
“We have an opportunity right now to correct this problem,” Castle said. “And I’m concerned that if we don’t take the opportunity now, this is a once-in-a-generation chance, and it may not come around again for a very long time.”
Solutions will depend on the circumstances of each community, and may involve drilling new wells, building treatment systems or running pipes to homes, Castle said, all of which will require coordination among federal agencies.
“That’s why our group is advocating for a ‘whole of government’ approach,” Castle said, referring to the initiative’s recommendations in a recent report. She said the proposed funding wouldn’t completely solve the water problems everywhere in tribal communities, but it would go a long way.
Jesse Slivers, 61, watches as Zoel Zohnnie fills his water tank on Sept. 1, 2020, in Steamboat, Ariz. Water Warriors United delivers water to families in need all across the Navajo Nation.
It’s the largest amount of money targeted for tribal clean water infrastructure, Castle said. “And it would address a very significant part of the problem. As a country, we’ve not focused on ensuring that Native American communities enjoy the same basic services as white communities do.”
The needs for basic water infrastructure on Native American lands go beyond the list of projects that federal officials have identified.
On the Navajo Nation, for example, a reservation-wide plan for building water infrastructure includes a list of projects that, according to Rex Kontz of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, would cost an estimated $4.5 billion to complete.
Some tribal leaders have voiced concerns that while the crisis of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, garnered national attention, their communities’ severe and longstanding water contamination problems have received much less attention.
“It’s taken a national pandemic to expose the drinking water crisis in Indian Country, but we will keep fighting to secure a clean and reliable water supply for our members,” Lee-Gatewood said. “We’re in 2021 now, and we still have people hauling water. And it shouldn’t be that way.”
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said he supports the legislation.
“It’s been my priority in the Senate to upgrade and expand tribal drinking water infrastructure to ensure tribal communities across Arizona have access to clean, reliable water,” Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly serves on a bipartisan water infrastructure working group, which a spokesperson said advances some of the Bennet and Heinrich bill’s priorities as well as other projects.
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in an emailed statement that the federal government “must continue investing in tribal water programs to guarantee access to safe and clean running water, provide adequate sanitation to stop the spread of COVID-19, and build stronger, more durable water systems that will help expand economic opportunities for Native American communities.”
Sinema added that she recently secured $250 million to fund 10 tribal water projects in Arizona each year through the reauthorization of the Indian Reservation Drinking Water Program.
A spokesperson for Sinema, a Democrat, said that she co-sponsored legislation to increase funding for the Indian Health Service’s facilities construction fund by $3 billion, and she supports legislation to provide another $1.8 billion to other programs. Sinema’s spokesperson said she is reviewing the new bill.
‘We need water to survive’:Hopi Tribe pushes for solutions in long struggle for water
Melissa Ami and Ramone Addington fill water jugs at a windmill below Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation on Sept. 10. Ami said her family’s home in Polacca has tap water with high arsenic levels, so they come to this communal well to collect drinking water.
Nuvangyaoma and other Hopi leaders have been appealing to federal officials for years for more funding to address the glaring deficiencies in water systems. With the Biden administration focusing on the need for infrastructure, Nuvangyaoma said he’s hopeful that legislators will support the bill.
“It’s time,” he said, “the nation invests in its very first peoples.”
Six Hopi villages have water contaminated with levels of arsenic exceeding the federal drinking water standard, Nuvangyaoma said. In some areas, tests have shown arsenic levels as much as three to four times over the federal standard, putting those who drink the water at higher risk of cancer, kidney disease, diabetes and other illnesses.
The tribal government has secured $20.5 million in federal funds for a water project called the Hopi Arsenic Mitigation Project, which is to include a 41-mile pipeline, storage tanks and other infrastructure that will bring clean water to homes. Under the plan, the system will supply water to 869 homes in the areas of First Mesa and Second Mesa, including 778 households that have tap water contaminated with arsenic.
Nuvangyaoma said workers have been out with equipment laying pipelines. But he said other infrastructure needs remain to bring clean drinking water to the Hopi, and he thinks the bill would provide important new funding.
The bill is more comprehensive than other previous proposals and “takes some of the guesswork out of where some of these monies are being allocated to,” Nuvangyaoma said.
Some researchers have likened the deficient water infrastructure on the Hopi Reservation to that of developing countries such as Pakistan and India.
About 40 years ago, the Indian Health Service installed water pipes in the village of Mishongnovi, where Nuvangyaoma grew up. But since then, he said, “I haven’t seen any real improvements to that water infrastructure.”
The pressing needs for basic water infrastructure on Hopi lands, and other Native communities nationwide, he said, “have just been overlooked for too long.”
‘Long overdue’: Lawmakers propose $6.7 billion to bring clean drinking water to Indian Country