WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is sounding alarms over potential dangers in the water supplies on the nation’s Indian reservations, saying the vast majority of tribe members live on reservations that haven’t adopted federally approved standards.
“That is a shocking thing to say and it’s something that we need to fix as soon as possible,” said Gina McCarthy, chief administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
McCarthy told a gathering of National Congress of American Indians in Washington last month that only 42 of the more than 300 federally recognized tribes with reservations use federally approved standards to measure water quality.
EPA officials said that not having federally approved standards does not mean that tribal water supplies are unsafe for public consumption, or for fishing or swimming. But without them, they said, there’s no federal guarantee of safety.
“Without these standards, we can’t know for sure that there’s a level of protection available to people who want to use those waters,” said Angela Chung, water-quality standards manager for the EPA’s Pacific Northwest Region. “It’s not necessarily a given that because they don’t have these standards that the water is unsafe, but if you don’t have a bar, you don’t know if you’re hitting it or not.”
In Washington state, Idaho and Oregon, 11 of 42 tribes have water standards approved by the federal government, according to the EPA’s office in Seattle. They include the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho, the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes in Oregon and eight in Washington state: the Puyallup, Lummi, Spokane, Chehalis, Kalispel, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Colville tribes.
In California, where there are 107 federally recognized tribes, fewer than half a dozen made the list.
McCarthy described the national situation as worse than “a lousy batting average.”
“That’s the hill we’re climbing,” she said. “For the sake of public health and the environment on tribal lands, this hill needs to be climbed.”
Lee Juan Tyler, vice chairman of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said agriculture and industrial wastes have long hurt water quality in the large rivers of the Pacific Northwest, forcing tribes to change their ways.
“The pollution that goes into the Columbia is like a disease spreading in our blood veins,” he said. “You can’t drink out of the rivers like we used to. We used to drink from the Snake River.”
Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington state and president of the National Congress of American Indians, said water-quality standards “must protect our tribal members” but that tribes need the federal regulatory authority to protect their natural resources.
While saying they could not offer specific cost estimates, EPA officials acknowledged that it can be expensive and time-consuming for tribes to build a water-quality program from scratch. They need to hire additional staff with the proper expertise, for example.
But if tribes choose to proceed, Chung said, the EPA can help them with grants to build and manage their water programs.
McCarthy said the EPA wants to help tribes by allowing them to apply to be treated similarly to states in setting their water-quality standards. To qualify, tribes would have to comply with requirements of the Clean Water Act, prove they’re capable of administering a program and conduct reviews of their standards every three years.
In her speech to tribal leaders, McCarthy said the new rule should help “close the gap” in making sure water supplies are safe on tribal lands.
“We will move forward with your help,” she told them.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the issue has not caused much of a stir.
Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and a lawyer who specialized in water law before joining Congress, has received little input from tribes on water standards, said his spokesman, Lindsay Nothern.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., an ally of the tribes who stepped down as chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2014, said through her spokesman, Bryan Watt, she’ll continue working with tribes to help them meet their needs.
“Sen. Cantwell believes all communities deserve access to clean drinking water, whether on a reservation, in a farming community or urban area,” Watt said.