Heather Tanana and Ted Kowalski: Tribal water resilience relies on water management resources, training support

Even new federal money for water projects isn’t enough without proper management tools.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune The dog of Harrison Hutchins at the Westwater Navajo community Wednesday August 18, 2010. The two-dozen mostly elderly Navajo residents of Westwater live without running water, plumbing, sewage disposal or electricity.

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but in Native American communities water insecurity remains rampant. Lack of reliable access to water in tribal communities such as Westwater in Utah – a Navajo community lacking running water for more than 40 years – exemplifies how many have been left behind due to a lack of water infrastructure and resources.

As the American West grapples with the worst megadrought in at least 1,200 years, the eight sovereign tribes in Utah and the 30 within the broader Colorado River Basin have been disproportionately hit with devastating water shortages.

Funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offers an unprecedented opportunity to begin to address this crisis. But only if we are also willing to address the structural barriers that have created this extreme inequity in the first place.

Despite having the oldest water rights in the Colorado River Basin, tribes face disproportionately low access to safe water sources. Native households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. In the Navajo Nation – the largest tribe in the United States, with 170,000 members spanning New Mexico, Arizona and Utah (with over 7,000 in this state alone) – about one-third of households are without access to running water. That means that members of these communities must travel long distances to haul water for basic tasks like drinking, bathing and cooking.

A lack of access to regulated water infrastructure also means tribes often rely on unregulated sources such as private wells, sometimes found to be contaminated with uranium and arsenic, leading to increased risk of cancer, kidney disease and other health problems. Even in tribal communities with running water, aging water infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growing populations and the impacts of climate change.

Addressing these issues requires navigating a maze of siloed government agencies – a process that is difficult in the best of circumstances and almost impossible in Native American communities that lack water management experts and federal grant writers.

Based on treaty and trust responsibilities, multiple federal agencies and programs handle water access in tribal communities with varied statutory authority. Inexperience navigating the system can easily lead to missed opportunities – as happened recently with the Navajo Nation, which was unable to tap into CARES Act infrastructure funding in time to finance critical water infrastructure projects.

The $3.5 billion for tribal water and sanitation in the infrastructure bill is a critical first step to provide clean water access to sovereign tribal communities. But federal funding is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Success will require arming tribal communities with resources and training, so they have the expertise needed to operate within federal agency programs, maintain water systems and engage in the grant writing and research needed to secure and effectively implement federal funds.

Federal, state and foundation support through grants can provide on-the-ground training to individuals and organizations already engaged in their community’s water management. Training the local workforce is critical in helping secure long-term access to water, and crafting a solution tailored to the unique situation of tribes. Capacity building will ultimately decrease the long-term financial impact for the federal government, agencies and tribes, and help promote the success of future projects.

In addition, including tribal voices in policy discussions ensures Native Americans can determine the solutions that work for their communities. Last session’s Utah Senate Bill 160 amended the existing Colorado River Authority of Utah to include tribal representation on the board and work towards an appropriate government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes within the state and Colorado River Basin. Tribal voices have also been recently included in discussion around the next phase of the Colorado River Compact, a roadmap for the region’s water management that is set to expire in 2026. These are good first steps towards critical tribal representation.

Both actions are overdue and indicate a growing consciousness that tribal voices and experts should be driving the laws and policies impacting tribal communities. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution and Utah’s sovereign tribal communities should be able to determine and fund the solutions that will best address their water crisis.

Heather Tanana

Heather Tanana is a citizen of Navajo Nation and assistant professor & Wallace Stegner Center fellow at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Heather’s research interests include addressing the wide gap in drinking water access for Native American communities.

Ted Kowalski

Ted Kowalski is a senior program officer, leading the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River initiative and supports work that promotes sustainable management of the Colorado River to benefit people and nature.