Heather Tanana, University of Utah – Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin

Access to clean water is critical for Native American communities.

Heather Tanana, assistant professor of law at the University of Utah, discusses the wide gap in drinking water access.

Heather Tanana is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and Assistant Professor & Wallace Stegner Center Fellow at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Heather is experienced in state, federal, and tribal courts and clerked for Judge Nuffer at the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. In recognition of her work related to Tribal communities and the pandemic, Heather was awarded 2020 Attorney of the Year from the Energy, Natural Resources & Environmental Law Section and the Jimi Mitsunaga Excellence in the Law Award from the Utah Minority Bar Association. Heather’s research interests include exploring the overlay between environmental and health policy, promoting better practices in Indian child welfare, and criminal justice in Indian Country.

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

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Water is life. Every household in America needs and is entitled to clean and safe water access

Yet, the magnitude of lack of clean water access in Indian country is significant and startling.

Our report uncovers the four main factors that have exacerbated gaps in tribal drinking water access, and in turn hurt public health and economic growth:

First, Lack of piped water services—Native American households are more likely to lack piped water services than any other racial group. Navajo residents, in particular, are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without access to running water. Hauling water is not only more expensive than piped water, but also increased the risk of exposure to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

The second component is inadequate water quality—poor quality is pervasive in Indian Country. The Hopi Tribe, which has struggled with arsenic contamination since the 1960s, estimates that approximately 75 percent of people living on Hopi land are drinking contaminated water.

Third, deteriorating or inadequate water infrastructure contributes to water insecurity —infrastructure investments haven’t kept up with need, resulting in interruptions in service and potential contamination of supplies. Some tribes have water systems dating back to the late 1800s. Native Americans are one of the youngest and fastest growing populations. Yet, because of deteriorating infrastructure, Tribes are struggling to support their growing communities.

Finally, many tribes are encountering challenges in supporting operation and maintenance costs putting existing water systems are at risk. Additional resources and tribal capacity are necessary to avoid future disruptions to water service in the community.

Nos the time for the federal government to keep its promises to Indian country and ensure that all Americans have access to clean, safe, and reliable drinking water.

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