Two federal agencies have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in which they agree to collaborate on efforts to develop safe drinking water and community sanitation infrastructure projects within Indigenous tribal communities. Funds allocated by those agencies for that effort surpass $1 billion.

On April 23, 2024, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Indian Health Service (IHS) entered into the MOU that directs “studies, planning and designs” to be used by those agencies to accelerate the construction of domestic water infrastructure projects in tribal communities, thereby removing barriers and streamlining tribal access to such resources.

The bureau “is pleased to work with the Indian Health Service in exploring opportunities for projects with the Yakama Nation and other tribes to initiate implementation of the MOU,” said bureau Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. Furthermore, the bureau initiated such actions in 2022 when it joined the Federal Infrastructure Task Force to Improve Access to Safe Drinking Water and Basic Sanitation to Tribal Communities, according to Touton. 

Using resources provided through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Public Law No. 117-58), the bureau has committed to tribal water infrastructure projects, including $320 million allocated in April 2024 for tribal domestic water supply projects.

Furthermore, the IHS is currently in its third year of funding water and sanitation projects, and on the same day the MOU was announced, HIS appropriated $700 million for those projects to be allocated during the fiscal year 2024.  “Having access to safe and reliable water systems is an essential matter of public health,” said IHS Director Roselyn Tso. “Unfortunately, far too many Native American communities are still awaiting these basic services,” she said, adding the agreement with the bureau “will accelerate completion of these critical projects and reduce barriers for our tribal nations to partner with our agencies.”

That Native American communities have been overlooked in basic services is an opinion shared by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), which is an organization dedicated to protecting native cultural sovereignty. In a statement provided to The Driller, Shannon O'Loughlin, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and CEO and attorney for the AAIA, said the association “supports federal funding for infrastructure to native nations considering that native nations are usually the last to be funded to keep our lands clean and safe.”

In addition, the need for water and sanitation projects at tribal communities is documented by the fact that Native American households are 19 times more likely to not have access to water in their homes compared to a white household, Margaret Martens, the executive director of the Water Systems Council (WSC), told The Driller.

The WSC is a national nonprofit organization with programs solely focused on private water wells and small, shared wells serving an estimated 23 million households nationwide, according to Martens, who said the council is “pleased anytime there’s an effort to increase water access.”

“It’s important that people recognize that millions of Americans don’t have access to drinking water at all,” Martens said. “The strain of not having water affects a family. Giving a family access to water in their home improves their lives dramatically. It creates a much better environment for all family members,” she said. 

Read the MOU announcement.