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Report: Colorado River Basin Tribes Lack Clean, Reliable Water

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It’s estimated that more than seven hundred thousand Native Americans in the U.S. are living without access to clean and reliable water.  A recent report from the Water & Tribes Initiative surveyed thirty tribes in the Colorado River Basin and found widespread problems with lack of water access and contaminated supplies. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with the report’s lead author, Heather Tanana, a Navajo Nation citizen and assistant professor at the University of Utah.

One of the conclusions of the report is that race is the most significant predicator of whether people had access to plumbing. Can you talk about that?

There are actually a few different articles that focus on what they’ll call ‘plumbing poverty.’…. I think that’s something a lot of people wouldn’t realize is true, you might think it’s more related to the rural nature of where someone resides, but these studies accounted for that and in the end, it’s race, and in particular Native Americans are the most impacted, the most likely to lack plumbing in their homes…. The pandemic has highlighted a lot of inequities in our country and bringing attention to them, and these are conditions that don’t exist in more affluent white communities. They just don’t.

Yeah, the numbers from the Navajo Nation in particular, I think you wrote that one in three Navajo homes doesn’t have running water, that’s an incredible number.

Yeah, you just wouldn’t expect—I think a lot of people aren’t aware of that. The average American has running water. …. and just the usage, right? A lot of these homes, if you don’t have a piped delivery system, you’re having to haul long distances, you have to be really conservative on the amount of water you’re using, and it’s a fraction of what other homes who have easy access are using.

What needs to be done to solve this problem?  

Funding plays a big role, for sure…. The Operation and Maintenance is pretty unique out in these communities, and Indian Health Service is the only agency that has the ability to fund O&M, and yet Congress has never provided the money for them to do that. So overall, I think the government—here we are, 21st century, we know how to solve these problems. We spend a lot of money on foreign aid outside the U.S. to get water systems in. With the pandemic highlighting these inequities that are happening within our own country, if we can just shift our resources, use the knowledge that we clearly have, it’s a real opportunity right now to solve this problem once and for all.

You write in the report that the federal government has a legal and a moral obligation to act on this issue. Will you tell me more about that?

That’s something that’s really unique to Native Americans and tribes in this country…. Tribes gave up millions and millions of acres of lands, and they did that in exchange for something, and it was for a permanent homeland. A lot of tribes were displaced to reservations that often weren’t their original homelands, and the government when they did that, they promised that the reservation would be a permanent homeland for the tribe and their people. Our report, one of our arguments we make, it’s impossible to have a permanent homeland anywhere unless you have water. It’s such an integral part to your survival. You’ll hear that saying a lot tribes in their different languages, water is life, life water. You can’t exist without it…. I guess what I’d stress is, living traditionally doesn’t mean living without water.

Heather, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you, Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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