Heather Tanana, a resident of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, recently authored a report which found that tribes are facing water shortages, lack of indoor plumbing, and water contamination from naturally occurring arsenic.

Tanana said agencies like the EPA understand the problems tribes are facing. EPA’s Office of Water released the plan Oct 14th, 2021, which also laid out steps to support more robust consultation with tribes on a host of high-profile regulations, from what constitutes a “water of the U.S.” to permitting for oil and gas pipelines and thorny projects. The agency’s plan is very timely given that the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress contains a large amount of money for the agency to boost drinking and wastewater infrastructure on reservation lands while addressing situations unique to each tribe.

According to EPA, about 86 percent of tribal water systems currently comply with health-based drinking water standards, compared to 93 percent of community water systems nationally.

EPA also emphasized that it has an obligation to implement Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs in Indian country where tribes do not have delegated authority to oversee water quality programs.

EPA specifically said it is planning to “promulgate federal baseline water quality standards for the 80 percent of Indian reservations that currently do not have EPA-approved water quality standards,” as well as a regulation to recognize and ensure protection of “tribal reserved rights in water quality standards.”

EPA in its report said water woes are fueling the ongoing pandemic on tribal lands, with Native Americans contracting COVID-19 at a rate 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic white persons, and dying at a rate 2.4 times higher than non-Hispanic white persons.

The agency also wants to strengthen and expand tribal governance of water facilities and oversight programs on tribal lands, and boost information sharing through a new website that will serve as a “central clearinghouse” for information about Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act tribal programs, funding opportunities, and tribal partnerships.

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