Letter from NTWC to the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) on drinking water issues.

Dear Associate Director O’Keefe:

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to engage with the OECA staff during our face to face meetings in Washington DC the Week of April 22 this year. The information that was presented was very informative and enlightening about the current climate of compliance in Indian country. The clarity that was gained pertaining to the compliance issues in Indian Country has given voice to the glaring need for a refocus on bringing existing water systems in compliance.

The importance of remaining focused on providing service to underserved communities needs to be viewed as a two-sided coin. The first side of the coin is ensuring the needed infrastructure to make access to safe drinking water is obtainable or in place. The second side of the coin is to ensure that the infrastructure is being utilized properly and in compliance with Safe Drinking Water guidelines. This is achieved through providing professional tools, technical assistance, and Accountability through Communication. The number of communities that are not currently being served has seen a steady decrease but will remain one of the National Tribal Water Council’s (NTWC) top priorities until the list is non-existent. That being said, NTWC believes that there should be a refocus on identifying the most effective opportunities to start impacting compliance rates in Indian country.

The NTWC realizes this problem is like an onion with its many layers, but we believe that there is some low hanging fruit that is ripe for picking. There is no denying the culture of noncompliance in Indian country. This is the by-product of the lack of resources to address compliance problems before they happen. Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning suggests the following occurs, though we are by no means making any comparisons with dogs. Tribes see the needed funding for their Drinking Water Systems (DWS) suddenly becomes more readily available when a system falls out of compliance.  It is harder to receive the funding a Tribe needs to stay in compliance. Once a Tribe experiences this over and over again, it makes falling out of compliance seem like a condition of the funding cycle to address the DWS needed repairs or upgrades. It is easier, and more lucrative, to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

This paradigm of Reactive instead of Proactive approach is a significant part of the problem that can only be addressed with an incremental shift in the way funding is made available to Indian country’s  small DWS, which are typically underfunded. At our meeting and during OECA’s presentation on Compliance in Indian Country, the one type of violation that leaped off the screen is monitoring and reporting. This kind of violation is a ripe, low hanging fruit, easily picked or solved in this case. These violations are the area that we believe can be significantly impacted the most in the shortest period of time. This is just the first layer of the onion but only requires the cultivation of Accountability through Communication.

We believe this is an opportunity to promote peer assistance between Tribes in a region by region basis. Peer Reviews can be conducted by Tribes for Tribes. This has been done for United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) since 1998. Operators talk to Operators, Managers to Managers, Clerks to Clerks.  The USET Peer Review Team conducts Sanitary Surveys of Small DWS.  All findings are confidential and reported just to the Tribe, unless there is an immediate Public Health threat.  Then EPA is contacted.  This allows Tribes in the same region to assist their fellow Tribes by conducting these Sanitary Surveys in a Peer Review. Tribes can assist Tribes out of compliance because of monitoring and reports by showing them how they conduct monitoring and do their reports.  Training for Sanitary Surveys of Small DWS can be conducted by each region’s Drinking Water Section.  Tribes can volunteer to do Peer Reviews for their neighboring Tribes.  Some funding may be necessary to defray travel expenses, but this is a much easier and less fmancial cost to EPA to achieve compliance of Small DWS.

NTWC believes it is imperative to ensure sanitary survey quality and frequency is a high priority. The sanitary survey is the most useful tool in identifying and helping operators address deficiencies before they become a significant threat to human health. Sanitary surveys can be a key component to immediately impact compliance in Indian country while helping to shift the existing paradigm from reactive to proactive and an increased focus on sustainability giving greater value to every dollar invested in water treatment and infrastructure. The Sanitary Survey is the start to shifting the culture but we believe that it would need to be utilized more frequently and refocused to help bring targeted incremental changes to culture of tribal systems. Peer Reviews done by Tribes for Tribes  will accomplish this goal. EPA regional personnel would also be a key instrument to helping target potential peer partnerships that would provide some technical assistance from tribe to tribe.

There are many more layers to the onion but if we can start peeling them back the problem gets smaller each time and more of Indian Country will receive the access to Clean Drinking Water they deserve.

Thank you for your continued efforts to maintain compliance in Indian Country. I hope that this letter will assist you and your staff in this endeavor.  The NTWC is willing to assist with the Peer Review concept.

Sincerely,

Ken P. Norton, Chairman, NTWC

Click here to download the original letter.