Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin

74 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2021 Last revised: 1 Oct 2021

See all articles by Heather Tanana

Heather Tanana

University of California, Irvine School of Law; Center for American Indian Health

Jaime Garcia

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School

Ana Olaya

CK Blueshift, LLC

Chelsea Colwyn

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School

Hanna Larsen

University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Students

Ryan Williams

University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Students

Jonathan King

Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

Date Written: September 7, 2021

Abstract

The coronavirus pandemic has tragically highlighted the vast and long standing inequities facing Tribal communities, including disparities in water access. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are at least 3.5 times more likely than white persons to contract COVID-19. Limited access to running water is one of the main factors contributing to this elevated rate of incidence.

This report describes current conditions among Tribes in the Colorado River Basin. It outlines the four main challenges in drinking water access: (1) Native American households are more likely to lack piped water services than any other racial group; (2) Inadequate water quality is pervasive in Indian country; (3) Existing water infrastructure is deteriorating or inadequate; and (4) Operation and maintenance of water systems is a critical component of ensuring long-term water security.

The report also examines existing federal assistance programs to provide drinking water access to Tribes. In exchange for the cession of millions of acres of lands, Tribes received certain promises from the federal government. These promises often included the establishment of a reservation as a permanent homeland for Tribes. Based upon an underlying trust responsibility, the federal government has a duty to protect Tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources. Access to a clean, reliable supply of water is basic to human health and clearly a necessary component to providing a habitable and permanent homeland. In at least partial recognition and fulfillment of its treaty and trust responsibility to provide access to clean water for Tribes, various federal agencies have established programs that provide support for water related projects. However, these programs are often underfunded and have other limitations. As a result, obtaining significant progress in providing universal access to clean water for all Americans has remained elusive.

Finally, the report concludes with policy recommendations to address Tribal community water needs. Key recommendations include adopting a whole of government approach and fully funding federal programs related to Tribal drinking water projects. A window of opportunity has opened to address water insecurity in Indian country. It is critical that action be taken before that window closes and these issues are ignored for several more generations.

Suggested Citation

Tanana, Heather and Garcia, Jaime and Olaya, Ana and Colwyn, Chelsea and Larsen, Hanna and Williams, Ryan and King, Jonathan, Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin (September 7, 2021). University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 466, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3919166 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3919166

Heather Tanana (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

Center for American Indian Health

615 North Wolfe Street
Baltimore, MD 21205
United States

Jaime Garcia

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

Ana Olaya

CK Blueshift, LLC ( email )

United States

Chelsea Colwyn

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

Hanna Larsen

University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Students ( email )

332 South 1400 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84112
United States

Ryan Williams

University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Students ( email )

332 South 1400 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84112
United States

Jonathan King

Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP ( email )

2550 M St NW
Washington, DC 20037
United States

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