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Health, Science & Environment
KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Advocates For Tribal Water Access Are Asking Congress To Earmark Money For Projects On Native Land

A Navajo man holds a hose while filling a large water tank in the bed of his truck.
Kate Groetzinger
/
KUER
Kevin Blackhorse lives on the Navajo Nation, just outside of Bluff. He said he comes into town twice a week to fill up his 270 gallon water tank at the gas station.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a clear connection between access to clean water and public health, according to Navajo tribal member Bidtah Becker.

Becker is part of a group called the Water & Tribes Initiative that advocates for water access in Indian Country. She said the pandemic has made it easier to ask Congress for money to solve the problem.

“The conversation has shifted from, ‘Oh no, you could never get that amount of money.’ And there’s always a little subtext of, ‘Are you really deserving of that money?’” she said. “Now it’s like, ‘Yes. Everybody needs clean drinking water. No questions asked.”

Becker said a significant amount of funding is needed to bring clean, running water to every Native American household in the U.S.

A map with dots shows households without running water.
Around 30% of houses on the Navajo Nation do not have running water, according to Rex Kontz with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Her group hired University of Utah law professor Heather Tanana to compile a report on the issues tribes in the Colorado River Basin face when it comes to clean water delivery. Tanana, who is Navajo, looked at four components: lack of infrastructure, contamination, increasing demand and insufficient maintenance funding.

“Even though we only looked at the Colorado River Basin tribes, we can confidently say every tribe in the U.S. is dealing with one of these issues,” she said.

The report also details issues with the patchwork of programs meant to fund water infrastructure and maintenance in Indian Country. There are seven federal agencies with over 20 programs that provide grants and loans to tribes, she said, but they rarely coordinate with each other.

That could be fixed by some direction from the White House or the Department of the Interior, according to Anne Castle, another member of the Water & Tribes Initiative.

“Part of the problem with the lack of response by the federal agencies is they haven’t had direction from the top,” she said. “Nobody has said, ‘We will get clean water to every citizen, and you are charged to do that by a certain deadline.’”
Anne Castle

The initiative is working with members of Congress to pass resolutions that affirm the need to provide clean water to all Native Americans. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, introduced the resolution in the Senate, and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-CO, has introduced the resolution in the House.

The group is also asking lawmakers to earmark funding for tribal water infrastructure and maintenance in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

The text for that bill is not out yet, but the Biden administration has released an overview that includes $111 billion for water infrastructure around the country. Castle said the cost to connect all of the homes in Indian Country to water is likely in the range of $6-10 billion.

The pandemic has already prompted the federal government to make major investments in tribes. The CARES Act provided $8 billion to tribes to combat COVID-19, and the American Rescue Plan included $31.2 billion, with around $900 million earmarked for water projects.

Becker said she’s optimistic Congress will fund the remaining gap.

“I am convinced that this will be addressed in my lifetime,” she said. “I never would have thought I’d be able to say that.”

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