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Water: Public Water Systems

Tribal PWSS & UIC Programs


History of the Tribal PWSS and UIC Programs

In 1974 the United States Congress passed legislation, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), designed to maintain and improve the quality of the nation's drinking waters.  Two major regulatory programs were created in the SDWA: the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) and the Underground Injection Control (UIC) programs.

Congress authorized EPA to delegate responsibilities to states for implementing and enforcing national standards within their jurisdiction.  States must apply to EPA if they want this "primacy" responsibility and must develop PWSS or UIC programs that meet national requirements.  EPA is still responsible for developing national regulations, overseeing state primacy programs and implementing programs in states without primacy.

Because of their unique status, Indian tribes were not eligible to assume primacy in the original Act.  Instead EPA regions were responsible for primary enforcement authority of  PWSS and UIC programs on Tribal lands.  This changed in 1986 when the Amendments to the SDWA added provisions that allow federally recognized tribes to assume primacy for the PWSS and UIC programs.  Section 1451 (“Indian Tribes”) of SDWA authorizes the EPA to treat Indian tribes in a manner similar to states and to assign primary enforcement responsibility (primacy) to qualified tribes. 

The PWSS and UIC programs are very complex and costly to operate.  For many tribes (especially those that do not have a large number of public water systems or underground injection wells), the costs and resources required to achieve and maintain a regulatory program may far exceed the benefits from achieving primacy.  Due to such difficulties, currently the only tribe that has sought and obtained primacy for the PWSS program is the Navajo Nation.  There are a few tribes that are pursuing primacy in the PWSS and UIC programs.

Today´s Tribal Direct Implementation Program

States and tribes that do not obtain PWSS and UIC program delegation continue to be directly implemented by the EPA region in which the State or reservation is located.  All EPA regions, excluding Region III (which has no federally recognized tribes), operate tribal PWSS and UIC programs to manage public water systems or underground injection wells on Indian lands. 

EPA's 1997 inventory shows that there are nearly 1000 public water systems (740 community water systems, 90 nontransient noncommunity water systems and 130 transient noncommunity water systems) that the EPA regional offices manage on Indian lands serving a population of nearly 500,000.  There are also over 5,300 injection wells (one Class I well, 4,300 Class II wells, 0 Class III wells and 1,042 Class V wells) on tribal lands that are managed by regional UIC staff. 

As the primary enforcement authority for tribal public water systems, EPA regions are responsible for enforcing against those systems that do not comply with federal drinking water regulations.  A formal enforcement action is taken as a last measure.  EPA regions dedicate a great deal of resources to provide tribes with technical assistance to help their systems or wells comply with federal standards.  Regional staff visit reservations as often as possible to provide compliance assistance on site. Many Regions also fund circuit rider programs which enable other qualified persons the opportunity to provide technical assistance and training directly to tribes.

For more information on the Tribal PWSS and UIC programs, please contact your program representative. 

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