Office of Community Services - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
The true value of water is often unseen. Most people in this country turn on the sink and take for granted that the water is running. However, for Native and tribal communities the impact of not having access to safe water and wastewater, is visible and felt every single day. To address ongoing water equity and access, Native and tribal communities are utilizing funds from three U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Community Services (OCS) programs to help meet their needs.
Across the country, Native and tribal communities suffer from chronic challenges with their water and wastewater systems that have persisted for decades and are impacted by poverty, remote locations, systemic racism, workforce issues, and the need for additional educational support.
Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. It is worse in some communities, as Navajo residents are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without access to running water. It is also estimated that approximately 75 percent of people living on Hopi land are drinking contaminated water, which pose serious public health risks to the community.
Inequitable access to indoor plumbing and clean water leads to health inequities. The lagging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate existing health challenges faced when water is not safe for hydration or handwashing.
Native Americans have contracted COVID-19 at a rate 3.5 times higher and have died at a rate 2.1 times higher than the non-Hispanic white population. Unsafe and low-quality municipal water, lack of access to clean water, contaminated well water, and lack of indoor plumbing contribute to this inequity.
Considering these ongoing challenges, OCS remains firmly committed to water equity and access for tribal communities through the administration of the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), the Rural Community Development (RCD) program, and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).
LIHWAP is a temporary, emergency program that provides funds to assist low-income households with water and wastewater bills. LIHWAP funds can be used to restore water services, prevent disconnections, and help make their water and wastewater bills more affordable. Nine months into Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22), the LIHWAP program has 97 participating tribes and more than $31 million allocated for tribal recipients.
To ensure equity among the smaller tribes, there is a minimum award of $10,000 to each participating tribe. As of June 2022, over 9,100 tribal households have been served by the LIHWAP program with 464 tribal households having water services restored.
RCD is a federal program that provides training and technical assistance to create and maintain safe and affordable water and wastewater systems for the nation’s unincorporated areas and the lowest-income communities, including small, rural tribes. The program supports tribes in developing new systems, improving their existing systems, or connecting to systems in neighboring communities.
In FY 20 alone, the RCD program served over 900 rural communities, including 246 tribal communities, for a total of over 1.5 million people served. During the following year, the RCD program enabled nearly 12,000 additional residents nationally to obtain access to sanitary sewer systems which meet applicable public health guidelines and/or sewer systems with sufficient capacity and reliability to meet the needs of users.
CSBG provides funds to alleviate the causes and conditions of poverty in communities. CSBG directly funds approximately 66 tribes and tribal organizations to lessen poverty, address the needs of low-income individuals and provide community-specific services from housing and childcare to addressing water and utility access.
Program funds from these three OCS programs can simultaneously serve households in a variety of circumstances. Tribes have utilized a variety of flexibilities to serve the complete needs of their respective community. The Nooksack Tribe uses LIHWAP funding to pay for water services and Emergency rental Assistance funds to pay off past due balances of rent owed by members of the tribe. The Riverside-San Bernadino Tribes operate their LIHWAP program out of the central Indian Health Service Center so residents can apply for water or energy assistance while receiving critical medical care or housing navigation services.
The Office of Community Services greatly appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with tribal communities across the country to eliminate the causes of poverty, including water inequity and inaccessibility. These partnerships are vital for the successful implementation of OCS’ programs and their ability to adequately meet the needs of tribes.