Opinion: Washington has a big chance to correct a shameful state of affairs for Native Americans

Water drips off a hose outside St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, N.M., in 2019. A water storage tank used by DigDeep, a human rights organization that works to bring clean water to those who don't have it, is in the background. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post

Opinion by Bidtah Becker and Anne Castle
July 21, 2021 at 4:51 p.m. EDT

Bidtah Becker is an associate attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and former director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources. Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado and former assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department.

Much of the infrastructure talk in Washington these days focuses on large, complicated projects involving tunnels, bridges and highways. But there is a much more basic matter involving infrastructure that also merits attention: the need to provide clean water to the more than half a million Native Americans who lack the sort of water and sanitation services that other Americans take for granted.

These households may have no toilet, no sink or any piped connection that delivers clean water, as a report by the Democratic staff for the House Committee on Natural Resources laid out in 2016. Others may be connected to a contaminated water supply that is not suitable for drinking and, in some cases, even poisonous. Still others may rely on systems that are deteriorating, unreliable and possibly polluted.

That so many citizens lack access to basic plumbing should be unacceptable in a modern country. Yet Native American households are 19 times more likely than those of White people to lack indoor plumbing. (Black and Latinx households are twice as likely as White ones to lack the same services.)

The public health impacts of not having clean water are obvious. At the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Native Americans were 3.5 times more likely than their White neighbors to be stricken with the illness. Unsurprisingly, the disproportionate incidence of covid-19 in Indian Country has been strongly correlated with the lack of indoor plumbing and access to clean water.

When you lack running water to wash your hands, or you share an outdoor latrine with other households, or you can’t isolate because you’re forced to drive to a water collection point used by the whole community to fill your plastic water buckets for the week, limiting exposure to a potentially lethal virus becomes nearly impossible.

Concerted efforts by tribal governments, urban Indian organizations and the Indian Health Service to provide vaccines to tribal members have slowed the incidence of covid among tribal members. But Alaska Natives and American Indians still have the highest hospitalization and death rates of any ethnic group. Tribal elders were hit particularly hard by covid, a devastating loss of Indigenous culture.

Native communities have chronically lacked access to clean and safe water for decades; the consequences of federal government inaction were simply laid bare by the pandemic. The lack of clean, piped water is not just a Native American predicament. In other rural areas outside of reservations, some households don’t have clean piped water. But nowhere else is the problem as concentrated as in Indian Country.

Moreover, the United States owes a special obligation to its Indigenous citizens. The federal government appropriated their lands in exchange for the promise that the tribes would have permanent, livable homelands where they could prosper and thrive. That promise has gone unfulfilled in countless ways, and it is meaningless if Native American homes do not have clean water.

This problem is not intractable. It simply requires properly funding and constructing the necessary systems. At least one solution has been authorized since 1959, when Congress created the Indian Health Service’s sanitation facilities construction program. Several other federal programs are intended to address the problem, but all have fallen short.

There have been encouraging signs that the Biden administration and members of Congress recognize the injustice. This year, the White House’s Domestic Policy Council has held two listening sessions on Native Americans’ access to clean drinking water. Resolutions have been introduced in both the House and the Senate acknowledging the federal government’s responsibility to provide clean water to tribes. Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have introduced the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2021, which would fund the unmet need in four federal agencies that administer programs addressing clean water infrastructure in Indian Country, for a total of $6.8 billion.

Each of the infrastructure packages now under consideration by Congress would dedicate significant resources for clean drinking water systems nationwide; but a specific, targeted appropriation such as the Tribal Access bill is what is desperately needed.

Investing in clean water infrastructure has far-ranging benefits: It creates good-paying jobs, nurtures future generations and offers the chance to address long-standing and persistent racial injustice. The Indian Health Service has noted that every dollar it spends on sanitation facilities to serve Native American homes has at least a 20-fold return in health benefits.

The current emphasis in Washington on infrastructure improvement and addressing racial justice provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to correct a shameful state of affairs that has been allowed to persist for far too long.