Water: State, Tribal & Territorial Standards
Video Transcript: "Our Water Our Future: Saving Our Tribal Life Force Together"
Pah. Mahpe. Tu. Qwa. By any name, water represents a life force to American Indians. Rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands and oceans are part of our landscape. Water nourishes our tribes, our herds and our crops. And water is part of our tribal legends and rituals.
From the Seminoles of Florida, to the Sioux of the upper plains to the Tlingit of Alaska, countless generations of American Indians have lived with the land and respected the earth and its abundant resources. No laws or regulations were needed to maintain this delicate balance...
Our lands were then affected by the industrialization of the country. Polllution flowed in our rivers, lakes and streams. As a result, our relationship with water changed.
Water remains a vital part of our lives and our rituals, but the quality of the water today cannot be taken for granted. We must take action to protect it.
In the 1960's people across the country became more aware of water pollution. Fish kills were common, sewage flowed in rivers and in 1969, Ohio's Cuyahoga River became so polluted with toxic waste it burst into flames.
The public demanded action and the U.S. Congress responded by enacting the Clean Water Act in 1972 to improve the nation's water quality. The Clean Water Act is implemented by the U.S. Environmental Proteciton Agency (EPA).
But, initially, little was done to protect the water quality in Indian country...
Then in 1987, Congress amended the Clean Water Act, and these amendments authorized EPA, to provide funding to eligible Indian tribes and to treat eligible tribes as states for the purpose of establishing their water quality standards.
So, what are water quality standards?
Water quality standards are the foundation and a tool for protecting and improving our surface waters.
Water quality standards consist of three parts:
- the use or uses of a water body, for such things as fishing, swimming, boating, or for cultural or traditional uses;
- water quality criteria which are limits on pollutants and conditions that will protect the use of the water; and
- an antidegradation policy that governs changes in water quality.
Some tribes have seen the advantages of developing their own water quality standards under the Clean Water Act and are now seeing positive results for their efforts. Here are the success stories of the Acoma and Chehalis tribes.
The Pueblo of Acoma's reservation stretches across almost 900 square miles of high desert in New Mexico. For hundreds of years Acomas hunted these lands and cultivated crops from the desert. While tribal members live in, and around three towns on the reservation, the heart of the pueblo is Old Acoma, a town atop a 357-foot high sandstone mesa. Old Acoma, called Sky City, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America.
Over the years, Acoma has become known throughout the world for its beautiful black and white pottery. Today tourism, tribal government, gaming and ranching support the Pueblo's economy.
For generations, Acomas enjoyed a steady flow of clean, clear water from the Rio San Jose and other area aquifers. But in the 1970s, tribal members and other area residents noticed pollutants and sludge accumulating on the Rio San Jose.
In addition, the nearby town of Grants had been discharging its wastewater into the river.
Under the Clean Water Act, pollutants discharged from point sources require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permit. Grants had such a permit from EPA to discharge treated effluent into the river. However, the city's wastewater treatment plant had numerous violations to its permit limits.
As a result, the Pueblo of Acoma eventually took legal action against Grants in the 1980s. This began the process of the tribe developing its own environmental programs.
The Pueblo of Acoma ultimately wanted to improve their domestic water supply, create a fishery, have water for recreation and bring farming back to historic levels. To do that, the tribe received technical and financial assistance from the EPA, and in 1996, they began the process of developing their own water quality standards.
The public and the local governments gave the Pueblo of Acoma enthusiastic support.
The Pueblo of Acoma approached this process in a very smart, efficient way and it went smoothly. Open public forums gave everyone a chance to learn what the tribe was proposing and to give their input.
The Pueblo of Acoma adopted its water quality standards in 1998. They were approved by EPA in 2001.
So far, the Pueblo of Acoma has faced a handful of compliance problems from dischargers and on each occasion, was successful in upholding its standards.
When EPA approves Tribal or State water quality standards, the approval does not include any enforcement authority. But under your own laws and regulations, Tribes and States may have authority to take enforcement actions.
The Pueblo of Acoma's water quality standards are working. Not only can they be used to protect against future degradation of resources, they are helping to meet the original goal of improving the health of the Rio San Jose.
For centuries, Chehalis people lived along the Chehalis River near the western coast of what is now Washington state. The Chehalis tribe depended heavily on fish from the river. In the 1860's the Chehalis were moved to a reservation between the Black and Chehalis Rivers.
Today, most Chehalis are employed either by the tribal government or in the gaming industry.
In the late 1980's, the quality of the Black and Chehalis Rivers began deteriorating.
The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation first started an environmental program with a grant from the EPA.
The tribe opened its Water Resource Department and set-up a water quality laboratory in 1992. The laboratory staff began testing the surface and groundwater on the reservation.
In 1994, the Chehalis Tribe began the process of developing their Water Quality Standards.
The Tribe's Natural Resources Department started holding meetings to inform tribal members and to obtain their input.
After the tribal meetings, the Chehalis Tribe went to the community at large to share their ideas and plans.
Then the tribe drafted their water quality standards, which were approved by the EPA in 1997.
Careful planning, open communication and solid relationships between the community at large, the state of Washington and the tribal government enabled the process to run smoothly.
In 2001, the tribe and state signed an agreement to establish a partnership in which both parties are committed to early notification on water quality issues, sharing informaiton and consulting before actions are taken.
Through this agreement, the tribe and the state have coordinated management of the water resources in the Black and Chehalis Watersheds.
The Chehalis Tribe is seeing progress. They've put rules in place to protect their life source - the Chehalis River.
By implementing their water quality standards, the Acoma and the Chehalis tribes continue to see positive results. Their rivers are running cleaner and fish and plant life are returning. The tribes' waters will be protected for generations to come.
Both tribes saw their water quality deteriorating, and took positive steps to improve water quality by developing and implementing water quality standards.
And it doesn't matter the size of your reservation - large or small - we all need the protection afforded by water quality standards.
Don't wait. From beginning to end, the process of developing water quality standards takes time.
So, how do you get started? Talk to your tribal memebers so they will understand the importance of protecting valuable water resources. Their support and involvement is critical...
Contact EPA's regional office in your area. EPA staff is available to provide technical assistance and advice.
Our water is our future. By protecting our rivers, streams and lakes today, we protect a vital lifeforce for future generations.