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The Hopi Tribe in Arizona faces a water supply contaminated with arsenic.
The Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico lacks funds to maintain its water infrastructure.
And Navajo residents continue to haul water miles to their homes.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and federal funding packages have opened a window to provide clean water for 30 Indigenous tribes in the Colorado River Basin, according to a new report from the Water and Tribes Initiative.
Bridging the tribal water access gap is the federal government’s responsibility, said Heather Tanana, lead report author, Navajo water lawyer and assistant law professor at the University of Utah.
“A promise the federal government made when it established reservations for tribes is that it did so to provide permanent homeland,” Tanana said. “You cannot have a permanent homeland unless you have water.”
The report outlines four challenges for tribal water security: piped water access, inadequate water quality, failing infrastructure, and limited funds for operation and maintenance.
A host of federal agencies – the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture – tackle tribal water projects in the Colorado River Basin.
The report recommends a “whole-of-government” approach to coordinate work and funding across agencies.
“Big infrastructure projects cost a lot of money and an individual agency is going to be severely limited in trying to be comprehensive,” Tanana said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shone a stark light on tribal water issues.
Native households are more likely to lack piped water than any other racial group, according to the U.S. Water Alliance.
Reservations with limited water access, such as the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache, have experienced virus infection rates at up to triple the national rate.
Bidtah Becker, a Navajo citizen with the Water and Tribes Initiative, said the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan are meaningful investments in tribal water security.
“Providing funds to both federal agencies and to tribes directly, that’s an important shift,” said Becker, who is also a Navajo Tribal Utility Authority attorney and New Mexico Interstate Stream Commissioner. “Tribes may, and often can, get funding … to people on the ground.”
The report recommends that the Biden administration engage in meaningful tribal consultation to help each Colorado River Basin tribe build and maintain resilient water systems.
“When Congress created IHS and its sanitation deficiency program, it authorized IHS to support the cost of operations and maintenance, but never funded it,” Becker said. “Water is life. A lack of water is a social issue, an economic issue and a public health issue.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.