Clean water is essential for the environment, wildlife and human health — obviously.
So the admission that most Native American reservations do not have federally approved water quality standards is astonishing and appalling.
The federal government needs to remedy this as soon as possible so that safe water can be ensured on tribal lands.
This surprising disclosure came at a meeting in Washington, D.C., last month with the National Congress of American Indians. Gina McCarthy, chief administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the group that only 42 of the more than 300 federally recognized tribes with reservations use federal water standards to measure water quality.
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In Washington, Idaho and Oregon, about a quarter of the tribes, or 11 out of 42, have water standards approved by the federal government. They include eight in Washington, which are the Puyallup, Lummi, Spokane, Chehalis, Kalispel, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Colville. In Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and in Oregon, the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes also made the list.
The rest of the tribes have no federally established way of knowing how pure the water is on their lands.
EPA officials noted that not having a water quality standard does not necessarily mean the water is unsafe for swimming, fishing or even drinking. But without criteria and no measuring system, there is no way to know for sure.
Part of the difficulty for tribes is that building a water quality program can be expensive, complicated and time consuming. In order to set their own water standards, tribes would have to apply to be treated like states.
This also means they would have to comply with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, which was enacted in 1972 to protect fish and wildlife and provide safe recreation opportunities.
The Clean Water Act is the leverage the federal government uses to ensure water quality standards are being met around the country. Washington officials are in the process now of updating clean water rules, but the EPA must approve them. If it doesn’t, the EPA has its own set of water standards for our state that it can impose.
With so much emphasis on cleaning up the nation’s waters, it comes as a shock that so many Native American reservations around the country have been missed in this effort. There must be a comprehensive approach to protecting rivers and streams from pollution, or the process does not work.
Lee Juan Tyler, vice chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho, said that wastes from farming and industry have hurt the quality of Northwest rivers, which has forced tribes to change their ways.
“The pollution that goes in the Columbia is like a disease spreading in our blood veins,” he said. “You can’t drink out of the rivers like we used to. We used to drink from the Snake River.”
EPA officials have finally acknowledged the gaps in the system, which is the first step in closing them. Now they have to act on their intentions.