Native American lands have some of the poorest water infrastructure in the country: 13 percent of homes on reservations lack access to clean water or sanitation, a significant number compared to 0.6 percent for non-Native Americans. On the Navajo Nation, home to 250,000 people, 40 percent of people lack access to running water and depend on water deliveries or wells contaminated by radioactive industrial waste. In Alaska, some native villages lack any water infrastructure, and traditional fisheries are being threatened by water contamination. Geographic isolation, extreme temperatures, and lack of funding make infrastructure in these villages prohibitively expensive. Across the country, Native American lands are often subject to environmental injustices like dumping and pollution, as well as hazardous sites and high-risk facilities such as mines and pipelines.
That’s from “An Equitable Water Future”, a new white paper from the US Water Alliance (pdf). It raises important questions about equity in both water quantity and quality in the United States. While, as the report points out, broad availability of safe and reliable water is one of the Unites States’ great achievements, water challenges in terms of obtaining safe water, or water at all, remain “a daily reality for some communities”.
This is a classically “wicked” problem in the sense that the definition of the problem itself fundamentally constrains the kind of solutions on offer, sometimes poorly. This is what was so brilliant about journalist Laura Bliss’s great work two years ago on East Porterville, the poster child for the impact of drought in California’s Central Valley. The East Porterville story was often used to frame a narrative of evil farmers going deep to pump groundwater, leaving East Porterville’s poor Latino residents’ shallow wells dry. Bliss’s story instead catalogues a history of disenfranchisement of poor communities like East Porterville that left them out of incorporated cities that were able to continue to provide reliable water even in the drought. Bliss quotes Stanford’s Michelle Anderson:
Neglect by white officials, often compounded by community need to keep housing costs low, resulted in a lack of rudimentary infrastructure, including paved streets, sewers, utilities, and water.
As such, this water problem is best viewed as being nested as much within the set of problems associated with equity in the provision of societal services – health care, education, safe transportation – as it is in the “water policy” domain, where we think about things like regulation of groundwater withdrawals and river diversions.