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EPA and IHS partner to enhance water services for tribes

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency, long an ally on certain tribal issues, is stepping up its commitment to enhancing water services in Indian country by working with IHS.

In early July, the EPA and IHS announced that $90 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have been allocated for improved access to vital drinking water and wastewater services in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

About $60 million will be dedicated to wastewater projects, while $30 million will go toward drinking water projects, according to EPA officials.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the funds will be invested in shovel ready infrastructure projects designed to better protect human and environmental health in Indian country and to create jobs.

Jackson said the funds will improve water services to more than 30,000 Native American and Alaska Native homes.

When asked if the neediest tribes in terms of water services will receive the most amount of money under this program, Jackson said “yes,” but noted that there is “quite a bit of need out there.”

For instance, a project to benefit the Tule River Tribe in Porterville, Calif., will replace failing septic systems – which threaten public health and the environment – with a community wastewater system. Meanwhile, the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Whiteriver, Ariz., will benefit from an efficient surface water treatment facility, which will provide the quality of drinking water needed to protect the health of residents in more than 2,000 homes.

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Jackson said some ailing tribes might not have shovel ready projects underway, so they may need increased capacity assistance – something she said both the EPA and IHS are working to do.

“This is one infusion of funds, and we’re certainly hopeful that it won’t be the last.”

Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services secretary, which contains IHS, said she believes the funds will help make communities in Indian country “safer, healthier and stronger.”

According to 2007 IHS data, approximately 10 percent of tribal homes do not have safe drinking water and/or wastewater disposal facilities compared with 0.6 percent of non-Native homes in the nation that lack such infrastructure as measured in 2005 by the U.S. Census.

A partnership between the EPA and IHS to improve water services in Indian country has existed for at least 20 years.

The agencies identified 95 wastewater and 64 drinking water priority projects to be completed by IHS’s Sanitation Facilities Construction Program via EPA stimulus funds.

A full list of funded projects is located online at http://epa.gov/water/eparecovery.

EPA officials said the projects exceed the Recovery Act requirement that 20 percent of the funds be used for green infrastructure, water and energy efficiency improvements and other environmentally innovative projects.