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Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper call for multilevel government and agency action on tribal access to clean water

Five U.S. Senators introduced a resolution Thursday that aims to settle water rights settlements and provide technical assistance alongside water infrastructure funding for tribal communities
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., front, and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., seen here on Friday, June 18, 2021, introduced a resolution Thursday aiming to settle water rights settlements and provide technical assistance alongside water infrastructure funding for tribal communities. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON – Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado introduced a resolution to the Senate with three other senators on Thursday that reaffirmed federal responsibility for clean water access for tribal communities.

The resolution calls for a “whole of government” approach, including collaboration between the Federal executive branch, Native governments, and state and local governments to develop, operate and establish clean water infrastructure. This includes the creation of an interagency task force to oversee facilitation and funding.

The resolution would affect all federal Indian reservations, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities.

“Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, yet far too many tribal communities are still forced to travel long distances for clean water,” Bennet said in a news release. “This resolution draws attention to that shameful reality, builds on our efforts to improve access for tribes, and reasserts the federal government’s commitment to providing these communities with clean drinking water.”

The two federally recognized Native American tribes in Colorado, the Southern Utes and the Ute Mountain Utes, each own two sanitation (projects) and one water project, according to a report by the Colorado River Water and Tribes Initiative. The Southern Utes have 1,510 enrolled members, and the Ute Mountain Utes have 2,134 enrolled members, according to the Colorado Commission for Indian Affairs.

Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack (have limited) indoor plumbing, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2022.

“The severe water insecurity experienced by Tribal communities reflects deep historic inequities and the federal government’s failure to provide permanent homelands, as promised in countless treaties and other acts,” said Heather Tanana, a visiting professor of law at the University of California-Irvine and the director of the initiative on universal access to clean water for tribal communities, in the release.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act requires the federal government to support tribal self-governance and self-determination. The most recent efforts in this were supported by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, an executive order from President Joe Biden passed in the spring of 2023, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which provided funding for clean water services.

The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act was introduced in 2021 to invest in water infrastructure.

The bill was reintroduced earlier this year, including an emphasis on providing technical assistance to accompany the $4.5 billion in funding for clean water infrastructure included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The resolution introduced Thursday addresses issues beyond the funding of infrastructure.

The lack of clean water can be attributed to no water piping systems in homes, poor water quality, deteriorating and insufficient infrastructure, and unsupported operation and maintenance, according to the same report by the Colorado River Water and Tribes Initiative.

Historically, the development of clean water infrastructure on federal Indian reservations has been hindered by uncertainty over the status of tribal water rights, long water rights settlements and tribal water rights quantification disputes. Multiple native communities have unresolved claims for federally reserved water rights.

The resolution seeks to provide clean water accessibility to tribal communities through the settlement and adjudication of tribal reserved water rights. It will also support infrastructure development regardless of settlements or adjudications.

“The lack of reliable access to clean drinking water so many Native communities face is an unacceptable deficiency,” Hickenlooper said in the release. “It’s our trust and treaty responsibility to ensure tribes have the basic infrastructure they need.”


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