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Water is Life: Sacred and Precious

Indigenous nations and peoples have always understood water to be one of the most vitally important sacred elements of life. To underscore this point, Hopi runners ran 2,000 miles, over a period of two weeks, from the Hopi Nation in Arizona to Mexico City.

They ran to deliver a message at the World Water Forum, hosted by the University of Puebla in Mexico.

Part of the message that the Hopi runners wanted to convey, say writers Roberto Rodrigues, and Patrisia Gonzalez, is that “water is a living sentient being, ‘the first living spirit on Earth.’”

Without water there would obviously be no life on earth. Before the European colonizers arrived in this hemisphere, water was pristine in comparison with today’s contaminated water.

Part of the legacy of today’s modern lifestyle – and related toxic industrial activities, such as cyanide leach gold mining and uranium mining – is the amount of toxic pollutants spewed onto and into the land, air and water each year.

The pollution has dire health effects on all peoples and all forms of life on mother earth, including thousands of American Indian households in Indian country that do not have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.

Concerns about the magnitude of water problems in Indian country, particularly on the Navajo Nation, arose at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.

In attendance at the WSSD was Christine Todd Whitman, then-head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The event was planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and was used as an opportunity to reaffirm the United Nations’ commitment to address environmental issues globally, particularly the problem of providing safe drinking water and basic sanitation to human beings throughout the planet.

As a result of concerns raised by a Navajo Nation representative at the World Summit, the EPA Region 9 provided a grant to the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The Washoe Tribe contracted with the National Tribal Environmental Council and the Rural Community Assistance Corp., as well as other organizations, to compile and analyze information regarding drinking water and wastewater needs in American Indian nations and communities in Arizona, California and Nevada.

In October 2005, the above-mentioned organizations completed a working draft of a report on the quality of water in Indian country.

The EPA Region 9-funded report, “Baseline Needs Assessment Drinking Water Systems in Region 9 Indian Country,” assessed water quality in Indian nations and communities located in the states of California, Arizona and Nevada, including the massive Navajo Nation.

“The ultimate goal,” the report said, “is to ensure to the maximum extent possible, that all tribal homes have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” Region 9, said the report, “includes 146 tribes in California, Nevada, and Arizona … with almost 500 public water systems serving a population of approximately 500,000.”

Indeed, “Region 9 therefore has approximately 50 percent of the public water systems in Indian country.” Due to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA “has direct regulatory authority for the majority of public water systems within Indian country.”

The report identifies 78 of 146 Indian tribes in Region 9 that participated in the assessment, and the data came primarily from federal databases.

The IHS is the “most comprehensive” source of information on the infrastructural needs of Indian country. IHS data as of 2004 revealed that 36,047 Indian homes lack access to safe drinking water throughout the United States, and of these, 20,575 are in Region 9.

Because these homes are in areas that are quite remote, “[p]roviding homes with access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation remains a challenge,” especially as federal drinking water regulations continue to become more stringent, said the EPA report.

According to the report, “Tribal homes hauling water, the majority of which are on the Navajo Nation, make up a significant portion of those households without access to safe drinking water. Approximately 30 percent of households on the Navajo Nation haul water.”

The problem with this means of obtaining water is the potential for “contamination of the source water if the watering point is not regulated and the potential for contamination introduced using unsanitary methods of hauling.”

Solving the problem of unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation in Region 9 will require money, and plenty of it, according to the report.

The report stated that, “The 2004 Annual Report for the Sanitation Facilities Construction Program of the IHS reports that the total national need in Indian country is $1.86 million.” At that time, it was estimated that $1.86 billion was needed to meet drinking water infrastructure needs, $542 million to meet wastewater infrastructure needs, $139 million to meet solid waste needs, and $2 million was “attributed to projects associated with operation and maintenance” needs.

The Region 9 report expresses a number of critically important conclusions. First, many physical infrastructure needs identified by Indian nations, with regard to water in particular, remained unmet. For example, 30 percent of homes on the lands of the Navajo Nation lack piped water, as do some homes in 22 other Indian nations or tribes (and many non-Indian homes).

Those drinking water systems in Indian communities that have fallen into disrepair need to be upgraded. This is particularly true now that new public health risks are being defined by the EPA, such as permissible arsenic levels in drinking water.

With regard to those Indian households that have no running water and must therefore haul their water some distance, the report found there to be “little, if any, federal assistance to support the added financial burden, or to address associated water quality concerns” (both from potentially contaminated sources and from possibly unsanitary water-hauling techniques).

There is a definite relationship between the operation and management capacity of Indian nations and Indian public health, the report says.

Simply put, there is likely to be a direct causal link between the inability of Indian communities to drink clean, unpolluted water and substandard Indian health.

Where federal support is most needed is in the area of operation and maintenance. Even though the report found that Indian nations place a “high priority” on “drinking water and wastewater management,” the Region 9 report clearly states that “most tribes are not able to fund all costs associated with operating and maintaining their utilities, and no federal agency is currently comprehensively quantifying [operation and management] needs or funding such costs.”

Given the need, it seems shocking that “no federal assistance [is] specifically directed to operation and maintenance expenses” for Indian nations.

According to the report, “This is the single greatest challenge identified by tribes participating [in] the assessment, and perhaps the most significant gap in federal assistance.”

Clearly, Indian nations face a tremendous burden when it comes to providing clean drinking water and sanitation for their people.

As the Indian population in the United States continues to grow and the amount of Indian land remains fairly static, these problems and their related health consequences will continue to pose a significant challenge to Indian country.

As the self-proclaimed “trustee” of American Indians, the United States has a responsibility to assist Indian nations – and all people in the United States – to adequate and safe amounts of the sacred and precious liquid that sustains all life.

<i>Steven Newcomb is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and a research fellow at the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College in New York.