Padilla Leads Hearing on Improving Access to Clean Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure in Tribal Communities

WATCH: Padilla calls for increased federal investment in Tribal water infrastructure

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, convened a hearing entitled “Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure in Tribal Communities.” The hearing examined a range of water-related challenges for tribes in the United States, including a lack of access to infrastructure, poor water quality, a shortage of operations and maintenance funding, emerging contaminants, technical assistance concerns, Tribal operator certification issues, and workforce development shortfalls. During the hearing, Padilla questioned Ken Norton, Chair of the National Tribal Water Council (NTWC) and Director of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Environmental Protection Agency; Brian Bennon, Tribal Water Systems Department Director, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA); and Jola Wallowingbull, Director, Northern Arapaho Tribal Engineering Department on how these barriers prevent tribes from building or upgrading aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure systems.

Padilla, who was chairing his second subcommittee hearing on water affordability and access, began his remarks by underscoring the harmful impacts inadequate water supply and deteriorating pipes can have on the public health, education, and economic development of Tribal communities. He advocated for a whole-of-government approach toward securing Tribal access to water, noting that some tribes only have one person dedicated to transportation, energy, and water services, and they lack the tax base to confront these water infrastructure issues. Padilla highlighted the challenges faced by tribes like the Tule River Tribe, whose members were forced onto a reservation without the irrigation and water storage facilities that the federal government promised and now have to haul in water by truck.

Despite significant federal funding for tribal water and sanitation needs from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, tribes are still more likely than other populations in the United States to lack access to wastewater services and clean drinking water. Padilla emphasized that Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. To address this crisis, Padilla called for sustained federal investment in operations and maintenance funding for water infrastructure, improved technical assistance opportunities, increased workforce development opportunities, and a permanent water rate assistance program.

Padilla opened his questioning by asking Mr. Norton about the remaining difficulties for Tribal water systems despite the $4 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for Tribal sanitation over the next five years. Mr. Norton discussed that without significant operations and maintenance dollars, violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act would continue to increase, adding that the federal Indian trust responsibility to tribes is failing with regard to safe access to drinking water in Tribal communities.

Mr. Bennon, Mr. Norton, and Ms. Wallowingbull emphasized that Tribal operators face a high barrier to entry and are frequently stretched too thin with a wide range of responsibilities, contributing to high violation rates, leading to high operator turnover, and forcing tribes to pay three or four times the cost for external consultants as replacements.

Padilla also questioned the witnesses on water affordability challenges. When asked by Padilla about the importance of a permanent water rate assistance program like the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), Mr. Bennon stressed the importance of pairing LIHWAP with an additional funding mechanism to examine technical community and utility needs. Ms. Wallowingbull and Mr. Norton also pushed for continuous, permanent LIHWAP funding.

Senator Padilla has consistently pushed to protect and improve access to clean, affordable drinking water, including in tribal communities. Earlier this year, Padilla and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Tule River Tribe Reserved Water Rights Settlement Act to formally recognize the tribe’s reserved water rights. The bill advanced unanimously through the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in March. During his first hearing as Chair of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, Padilla examined how rising water rates, aging infrastructure, and extreme weather events are increasing water affordability challenges for communities across the country, including Tribal communities. He is also a cosponsor of the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023, legislation that would dramatically expand Tribal access to clean water by investing in water infrastructure.

More information about the hearing is available here.

A transcript of Padilla’s opening remarks, as delivered, is available below:

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you all for joining us today for our second hearing this Congress of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife. Not only are we set to discuss drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in Tribal communities, here in EPW, but I’m happy to share that as we speak, Subcommittee Chairman Wyden of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is also holding a hearing on water access in underserved communities. And next week, Chairman Schatz will join us by holding a hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee on related issues as well. So there’s a growing consensus here, which is encouraging news.

Ensuring Tribal access to water and sanitation is a multi-jurisdictional, multi-committee, multi-agency problem. And I’m proud that there’s a commitment amongst my Senate colleagues to tackle it. As we’ll hear from our witnesses today, this is an often overlooked and underfunded area with serious impacts on the health and well-being of countless Native American communities.

So I want to thank Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Capito as well as my subcommittee ranking member, Senator Lummis for prioritizing this issue. Senator Lummis is on the way. She’ll be joining us in a few minutes. And we expect Chairman Carper and other members of the committee as well. I also want to take a moment to thank all of our witnesses for joining us to help convey the challenges that Indian country still faces, in the year 2023, the challenges still faced in securing adequate water infrastructure for their communities.

As I mentioned, we’re here today to learn more about the current state of drinking and wastewater infrastructure in Indian country. In 2023, there’s no reason why any person in America should lack clean and affordable water in their taps and in their showers and reliable plumbing in their homes. Yet, far too many Tribal communities across the country, for too many of them, reliable and affordable water infrastructure has become a privilege, and not a right. Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor pipes for running water and sanitation. Let me emphasize that statistic a little bit, not 19% more likely. 19 times more likely.

And even that stat on the shortage of physical infrastructure doesn’t begin to capture the gap in water quality for Native Americans. Inadequate water supply, and deteriorating pipes can impact the public health, education and economic development of Tribal communities. And it’s easy to see why. If you can’t trust the water you’re drinking or the plumbing that keeps your home sanitary, it harms your quality of life.

On top of that, Tribal communities’ water systems are almost all small or rural, as well as understaffed, often with only one person dedicated to transportation infrastructure and energy infrastructure and water services, and more. And unlike state and local governments, Tribal governments lack the tax base for infrastructure improvements and staff, often exacerbating water access issues and leading to higher water bills for Tribal homes.

I know we’ve seen these problems in California, where for example, the Tule River Tribe, like so many others, was forced onto a reservation without the irrigation and water storage facilities that the federal government promised.

The Tule River Tribe faces a constant battle to access clean water. Families are forced to haul in water by truck for their own daily hygiene or for their children to drink. And on days, when water is too tough to get, some simply go without. And when disaster strikes, as it did last month, when a stray lightning bolt knocked out power, hundreds lose access to clean water in an instant.

So this must be an urgent priority for the federal government, which, I will remind us, has a moral and legal trust responsibility to act.

Of course last year after decades of neglect, Congress did step up to make transformational investments in Tribal infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will bring nearly $870 million to the EPA for Tribal infrastructure construction, and $3.5 billion to the Indian Health Service for Tribal sanitation. That’s good news.

But for as much good as that funding will do, the need in Tribal communities is even greater. And they’ll need not just an initial surge of funding for new projects, but sustained funding for securing the long-term stability of the water systems. That could mean new and continued funding for operations and maintenance so that even without tax revenues, tribes have a reliable stream of funding to repair and maintain water infrastructure when needed after the initial investments dry up. That could mean improved technical assistance to better support the design of Tribal projects that will receive federal funding. That can mean increased workforce development for understaffed water managers, and tailored certification training for Tribal operators whom hundreds of people might rely on to stay safe.

And, as we focused on my first subcommittee hearing, that could mean finally funding a permanent water rate assistance program, like we have for energy assistance with LIHEAP, to ensure that Native American households aren’t saddled with high water bills that they can’t afford. So there’s a lot on the table today, and I’m looking forward to hearing from each of our witnesses about what you’re seeing on the ground and what you see as the most direct solutions to getting Tribal communities the support that they need.


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