The Navajo Nation will be better able to ensure safe drinking water for its citizens, thanks to an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Thursday, February 27, the Navajo Nation Public Water System Supervision Program obtained a primacy award, which gives the Navajo Nation regulatory control over its public water systems, control that usually falls to the EPA.
The agreement is the first of its kind between the U.S. EPA and a Native American tribe.
“Since we are the first tribe, we have become a model for others,” said Derrith Watchman-Moore, Executive Director of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency. “This really is an exercise in sovereignty. We have achieved treatment as a state.”
Primacy will give the Navajo Nation local control over their systems. “All systems must be in compliance with the laws,” said Moore. “Now, we won’t have to ask others to come in to regulate our systems. We can do it ourselves.”
That capability will help the Navajo Nation ensure that everyone is complying with safe water drinking laws by monitoring their water supply on a monthly basis for contaminants. The EPA, she said, has not been as good about keeping people in compliance as the NEPA can be.
And regulation is extremely important, said Watchman-Moore, due to fluctuations in the water table. “Water cannot sit for very long before it becomes a public health hazard. We must make sure that the water doesn’t contain contaminants. Those could come from anything.”
Thursday’s signing was the culmination of a long, 10-year process, said Watchman-Moore. Before assuming the responsibility for their water systems, the Nation had to first build the scientific and technological foundation to ensure a smooth transition. It also needed to have an accounting system, ability to enforce laws, a judiciary system and jurisdiction.
The latter of these, jurisdiction, was one of the biggest, legal hurdles, said Watchman-Moore. While the Nation needed jurisdiction over all the public water systems within the formal reservation boundaries—with the exception of the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant—the Navajo EPA also had to deal with state lands surrounded by Indian land and those facilities on the reservation owned by non-Indians. Under the new primacy agreement, the Navajo nation will have regulatory control over the water systems at Sage Memorial Hospital and St. Michaels Indian School, as well as all public water systems located outside the formal reservation boundaries on tribal trust land, allotted land or within satellite reservations.
“We really had to partner with tribal, state and federal departments of justice, and we are fortunate that we can assert jurisdiction.”
Watchman-Moore said that the Navajo Nation only had trouble with jurisdiction with the two power plants. “The leases for those facilities were signed with covenants that gave up regulation in the 1960s,” she said, so they will remain under the jurisdiction of the EPA. “But we can live with that for now,” said Watchman-Moore.
“This was a good effort to partner with the EPA and become peers as regulators. We are now the endpoint for regulation on the Navajo Nation.
“We are first nationally, and others are looking at us. We are willing to answer questions for other tribes who want to do the same thing. We have to help other tribes.”
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