Environment | National

EPA encourages more tribes to develop water quality standards

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

Another tribe won approval to develop its own water quality standards on Wednesday as the Obama administration works to help Indian Country exercise more sovereignty over their natural resources.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada will be treated in a manner similar to a state under the Clean Water Act. The designation marks the 51st approval of its kind from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Administrator Gina McCarthy said that's not enough because it covers just a small percentage of eligible reservations. She wants more tribes to be able to protect one of their most precious resources.

"Right now the majority of Indian reservations do not have water quality standards to protect public health and the environment," McCarthy said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., last week. "That is a shocking thing to say and it's something that we need to fix as soon as possible."

As part of the effort, the EPA last fall proposed a rule that streamlines the lengthy treatment as state process (TAS). McCarthy said the change will make it "easier" for more tribes because they will no longer be required to demonstrate they have the inherent authority to regulate waters on their reservations.

A second rule under development also fills in the gaps by establishing "baseline" water quality standards in Indian Country, McCarthy said. Tribes that want to participate can tailor the program to fit their needs or expand upon them if they decide to start the TAS process down the road.

"So everybody could get a level playing field and those tribes that want to can take over this program and do even better using their own authorities," McCarthy said.

A third rule wasn't mentioned specifically by McCarthy at NCAI but it also seeks to protect reservation waters. For the first time, the EPA has developed a process to help tribes address impaired or polluted waters.

"We're working on the proposed rules because we remain absolutely committed to upholding our tribal trust responsibility by enhancing tribal sovereignty," McCarthy told tribal leaders.

The comment period on the TAS streamline rule closed last October and some state governments expressed concerns. The EPA hast not indicated when a final rule will be published.

Weber Reservoir on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Nevada. Photo by Reno Tahoe via Flickr

The impaired waters rule under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act was published in the Federal Register on January 19 and comments are being accepted until March 21. Only a few have been submitted so far but the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians in California embraced the change.

"The promulgation of the proposed rule would enable the tribe to exercise its sovereignty by operating a 303(d) program, and would further the tribe's ability to protect and preserve its water resources on the reservation," Chairman Darrell Mike said in a letter to the EPA.

As for the Walker River Paiute Tribe, its leaders will now be able to submit its water quality standards to the EPA. The 325,000-acre reservation includes the Walker River, Weber Reservoir and the confluence with Walker Lake.

“The waters on this land are integral to the tribe’s health and culture," EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said in a press release.

Of the tribes whose TAS applications have been approved, only 42 so far have actually won approval of their standards, according to the EPA. Additionally, the agency has issued water quality standards on one reservation.

Besides the rule changes, the EPA finalized its treaty rights policy. The document explains how the EPA will consult tribes to ensure that any decisions and actions do not conflict with treaty rights. Whenever possible, the agency will work to protect and enhance treaty rights, it states.

"Under the constitution treaties are the supreme law of the land," McCarthy said to applause at NCAI.

Federal Register Notices:
Treatment of Indian Tribes in a Similar Manner as States for Purposes of Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act (January 19, 2016)
Revised Interpretation of Clean Water Act Tribal Provision (August 7, 2015)

Related Stories:
Updates from National Congress of American Indians winter session in D.C. (02/23)
EPA backs water quality rules set by Northern Cheyenne Tribe (12/10)
EPA proposal aims to streamline recognition of tribal authority (9/24)

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