Nevada’s Native communities face worsening access to clean water, plumbing

By: - September 8, 2022 6:00 am

Failing infrastructure and paltry funding for tribes in Nevada has likely contributed to the growing number of Native American households in the state facing plumbing and water quality problems, according to a new study. (Image by Kati from Pixabay)

For nearly seven years the Walker River Paiute Tribe has requested federal funds to repair a faltering sewage system on their reservation. It was only after the $110 billion infrastructure bill passed earlier this year that the project was finally promised funding. 

“That’s always the problem, they can’t find funding,” said Alan Roberts, the public utilities manager for the Walker River Paiute Tribe.

The cost of the needed repair is a bit over $972,000, but as what is defined as a tier one project, the tribe’s wastewater leakage is a low priority for the Indian Health Service, which is responsible for allocating sanitation funding for First Nations.

“We don’t have the money to do it on the tribal side, but they have funding for these types of projects to help us out,” Roberts said. 

Repairs for the sewage system are now set to begin after the Indian Health Service was allocated  $3.5 billion for tribal water and sanitation projects that have been neglected until now.

Improvements to sanitation facilities can reduce inpatient and outpatient visits related to respiratory, skin and soft tissue, and gastroenteric disease, according to IHS. Every $1 spent on water and sewer infrastructure can save $1.23 in avoided direct healthcare costs.

But failing infrastructure and paltry funding for tribes in Nevada has likely contributed to the growing number of Native American households in the state facing plumbing and water quality problems, according to a new study by a team of scientists for the Desert Research Institute and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

The research team used U.S. Census microdata on household plumbing characteristics to analyze Native American citizens’ access to “complete plumbing facilities,” including piped water, a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower. 

Researchers found that during the 30-year time period from 1990-2019, an average of 0.67% of Native American households in Nevada lacked complete indoor plumbing – higher than the national average of 0.4%. 

Analysis of Native American communities in Nevada also revealed a consistent decline in access to complete indoor plumbing over the last few decades, with more than 20,000 people affected in 2019. That same year, about 15,000 people living in Native communities in the state did not have access to hot running water.

That trend bucks the national trend of water and sanitation infrastructure improving over the decades, said Erick Bandala, the lead author of the paper.

“It’s very hard to figure out the main reason for that,” Bandala said. “We believe that probably the poverty level that these communities are facing in the last ten years or so may have something to do with it, but there is no clear cause for the increase.”

According to the study, a lack of access to either plumbing, hot water, a shower, or a toilet in communities increased as the number of family members in one household increased, meaning a lack of housing on reservations only exacerbated the problem.

Other tribes in Nevada face large-scale sanitation deficiency and failing water and sewer infrastructure resulting in environmental issues that can negatively impact public health.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe in Humboldt County needs funding to replace an aging water storage tank that has eroded the tribe’s ability to fully meet its citizens’ sanitation needs.

Tribes in rural Nevada are highly vulnerable to water insecurity because of a lack of access to water infrastructure stemming from policy decisions made in the early days of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation, said researchers.

“We need to start taking measures to help these communities,” Bandala said.

Over the past 15 years, the number of Safe Drinking Water Act violations has also shown a significant growing trend in Native American communities throughout Nevada. 

From 2005 to 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency registered 187 health-based violations in public water systems serving Native American communities in Nevada, the most common being “volatile organic compounds” in water, or harmful gases produced by a number of products and processes including common sources like gasoline.

“That is concerning,” said Bandala about the upward trend of violations. “It’s a measurement of the quality of water that’s delivered to the population for consumption.”

Continued exposure to volatile organic compounds increases the risk of leukemia, birth defects, neurocognitive impairment, and cancer in humans. Benzene, one of the most hazardous substances for public health and a known carcinogen, has been consistently listed in the health-based violations in Nevada’s Native American communities, researchers found. The report’s authors noted more research needs to be done to see what accounts for the rise in violations.

Bandala said population growth did not account for the increase in violations reported, adding that constant monitoring of water utilities is crucial for tribal communities in Nevada.

“When you drink water you have no way to know whether the water is good or not, unless visibly dirty water is coming out of the tap,” Bandala said. 

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.