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EPA's Role in Safe Drinking Water on Tribal Lands

Administering SDWA on Tribal Lands

EPA works with tribal governments and tribal utilities to help their systems comply with the SDWA to improve access to safe drinking water.

EPA is also committed to implementing the goals and principles identified in the Agency’s 1984 Indian Policy. Additionally, EPA’s Strategic Plan 2014 – 2018 and National Water Program Guidance outline measures and targets to improve access to safe drinking water on tribal lands.

Where EPA has primacy, Regional Offices implement the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) program and have enforcement authority over tribal drinking water systems.

EPA can authorize primacy to qualified tribes for implementing programs that enforce national standards within their jurisdiction, including the PWSS program. To date, the Navajo Nation is the only tribe that has applied for and received primacy.

SDWA Compliance by Tribal Public Water Systems


National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) are legally enforceable standards and requirements. NPDWRs protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water. These regulations apply to all public water systems (PWSs).

It is the responsibility of tribal governments and tribal utilities to maintain and operate the system in compliance with EPA’s NPDWRs and other program requirements.

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Compiling and Analyzing Drinking Water Compliance Data

Under the Tribal Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) program EPA collects drinking water compliance data. The data is analyzed to determine compliance with SWDA in Indian country.

EPA stores this information in the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS). SDWIS contains information about public water systems and their violations of EPA's drinking water regulations.

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Conducting Sanitary Surveys and Source Water Assessments

EPA performs Sanitary Surveys to assess a PWSs ability to provide safe drinking water to the community. A sanitary survey is an on-site review of a public water system’s source, facilities, equipment, operation and maintenance. Surveys identify sanitary deficiencies and technical needs; assess a system’s capacity and structural integrity.

The following eight areas are evaluated for compliance:

  1. Water sources
  2. Treatment
  3. Distribution systems
  4. Finished water storage
  5. Pumps, pump facilities and controls
  6. Monitoring, reporting and data verification
  7. Water system management and operations
  8. Operator compliance with EPA requirements

There is a federal mandate to perform sanitary surveys for all public drinking water systems. EPA performs the surveys on tribal lands where EPA is the primacy agency. Most importantly, these surveys provide an opportunity for EPA to work with the system to lower the risk of contamination and waterborne disease.

Source water assessments are another integral part of ensuring that a water system is providing safe drinking water to the community. These assessments are different for each system. They analyze existing and potential threats to the quality of the PWS and identify protection measures to address these them.

EPA may perform an assessment or help establish Source Water Assessment Programs (SWAPs) for a tribal PWS.

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EPA Assistance to Tribes

EPA implements the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and program requirements on tribal lands. EPA Regions help tribal water systems meet these regulations and requirements so that they can deliver safe drinking water to their tribal community.

Several types of assistance that EPA provides for tribal systems:

Technical Assistance

At tribal utilities, EPA’s Public Water Systems Supervision (PWSS) program:

  • Implements the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) and requirements;

  • Ensures compliance; and

  • Provides training and technical assistance.

EPA also helps to build the public water system’s capacity by providing technical assistance as part of the PWSS grant program.

Water System Infrastructure Assistance

EPA’s Drinking Water Infrastructure Grant – Tribal Set Aside (DWIG TSA) Program provides resources to assists tribes in improving water system infrastructure. Community water systems and non-profit non-community water systems serving tribal populations are eligible for project funding.

Federal Partnerships

Another way EPA helps improve access to safe drinking water on Indian country is through collaboration with other federal stakeholders. An example of this is the Infrastructure Task Force (ITF). The primary focus of the ITF is to improve access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in Indian country.

The federal partners participating in the task force include:

  • US Department of Agriculture (Rural Development);
  • US Environmental Protection Agency;
  • US Department of Health and Human Serviced (Indian Health Service);
  • US Department of Housing and Urban Development; and
  • US Department of the Interior (Bureau of Indian Affairs).

The agencies accomplish the goals of the ITF by coordinating federal efforts in delivering water infrastructure, wastewater infrastructure and solid waste management services to tribal communities. These lead to a streamlined approach to agency policies, regulations and directives. Streamlining reduces the administrative burden for tribal communities and facilitates access to funding.