Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Sacred Water,” Environmental Health New’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles—and successes—to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.
CROW RESERVATION— Alisara Knaub saw firsthand how contaminated water can upend your life.
“My daughter is 3, her first year she couldn’t gain weight,” says Knaub, a greenhouse assistant at Little Big Horn College. “The doctor said our water was the main reason.”
Knaub, who lives near the town of Lodge Grass on the reservation, couldn’t recall the exact bacteria in her water but she knows it’s there: she doesn’t wash dishes with her well water. Guests who drink it get sick.
Bacteria such as E. coli can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Half the people on the reservation are on well water. “People fear turning on their taps,” Knaub says.
There isn’t an easy fix for the Crow Nation’s bacteria-filled springs and metal-spewing home wells, but a federal boost and a renewed focus on youth aims to clean up and reenergize the tribe’s relationship with water.
A water system in the works, with clean energy and irrigation dollars attached, has Crow members encouraged. But that’s 10 to 15 years away. In the meantime, stark economic and health realities stifle stopgap solutions and stir urgency in cleaning the taps and rivers.
Fewer than two people per square mile live on the Crow reservation. A water system to serve the reservation’s 7,000 members will need 750 miles of pipe. A recently finalized settlement—the Crow Tribe-Montana Water Rights Compact—earmarks $246 million for that municipal water system.
It includes an additional $131 million for an irrigation project and $81 million for tribal administration of both systems. The compact, finalized in June, ended more than 35 years of acrimony and litigation over Crow water rights. It is seen by all sides—federal, state and tribal governments—as a turning point for public health, economic stability and tribal governance.
“The potential is great,” says Crow member Robert Old Horn, while looking out over the rodeo grounds at Crow Agency, a town of 1,800 that is the de facto capital of the reservation. Down the dirt track in the hot July sun six jockeys—”warriors,” the announcer called them—were at a full gallop on their bareback steeds, about to finish the first lap. The races and an earlier parade, plus speeches and prayers in Apsáalooke and English, were part of the tribe’s “Water is Life” celebration marking the compact’s completion.
“The (municipal) water system will provide good, clean treated water,” Old Horn says. “That will be a blessing for all the homeowners.”
Western water rights reclaimed
The water compact and new water system come at a crucial time for the Crow. The rivers and streams on the reservation are testing positive for harmful bacteria. Many people have uranium, manganese and other harmful metals coming out of the taps. There are health concerns on the Crow reservation—children like Knaub’s daughter getting sick, people with diabetes ingesting metals that attack the kidneys—but also cultural threats. Bacteria-tainted springs, such as the revered Chief Plenty Coups spring, are used during traditional sun dances and fasting.
The Crow are the latest tribe to tussle with the federal government over water rights. Between 1978 and 2014, Congress enacted 29 Native American water rights settlement acts, with four more approved by the Departments of Justice and the Interior.
All but one of these settlements—Florida’s Seminole Tribe is the exception—have been in the western U.S., where water allocation has always proved most contentious.
It wasn’t supposed to be so for tribes: an early-20th-century Supreme Court decision, Winters v. United States, determined Native American reservations had an implied water right to meet their needs and prohibited non-Indian users from interfering with such rights. But the decision was nebulous, didn’t set water ownership amounts for each tribe, and was further neutered in 1963 when the Supreme Court interpreted the Winters ruling as meaning that tribes had rights to the water deemed necessary to irrigate their land.
The modern-day settlements are a way for tribes, without going through lengthy, costly litigation, to finally right these wrongs and secure their water—knowing how much they have and what’s theirs to use—and allows them to put the water to work, whether for drinking or through irrigation, sale or energy development.
In testimony to Congress on Indian water rights in May 2015, Steven Moore, a senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, put current settlements into a historical perspective.
“During the early and mid-1900s, the United States entered into a period of mass water infrastructure development in the arid West to stimulate the depressed economy and to accommodate population growth,” Moore said. “Although these projects affected tribal water rights, they were developed with little to no consideration or assertion of such rights.”
Such exclusionary water development left tribes wanting, says Moore, who represents tribes in navigating settlements, in a phone interview.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of settlements is negotiating and finding the often-attached federal funds for drinking water and irrigation infrastructure improvement. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the feds have spent more than $3.5 billion for Indian water rights settlements as of 2015.
Two settlements are pending in Congress: 400 miles northwest of the Crow reservation, in East Glacier the Blackfeet reservation was under a boil water advisory for 18 years until they installed a $22 million water treatment system in 2012. The system benefitted from federal funding. But the tribe is still negotiating with the feds over their water rights. They’ve been in and out of court for two decades trying to secure and protect their water.
“The Blackfeet have waited the longest, and over the history of time the Blackfoot Nation has given up the most,” Montana’s lone U.S. representative, Republican Ryan Zinke, said in a July statement when he introduced the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act of 2016. “It’s time to move forward with this water compact.”
The second case awaiting congressional review affects the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in California. The tribe would get rights to up to 4,994 acre-feet of water a year as well as about $28 million in funds. An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, enough to cover an acre a foot deep or leave an Olympic-sized swimming pool half full.
Momentum in many ways is with the tribes now. In a 2015 report on the state of Indian water rights settlements, Charles Stern, a specialist in natural resources policy for the Congressional Research Service, wrote, “long-standing disputes over water rights and use involving Indian tribes likely will be an ongoing issue for Congress.”
Moore, the Native American Rights Fund attorney, says it’s in the government’s best interest to settle cases quickly as water storage and treatment costs built into agreements will only go up with delays.
Beyond first water
On the Crow reservation, the new water treatment center and pipes will fix a haphazard system that leaves many residents reliant on untested and likely tainted water for drinking, cooking and washing.
Many home wells appear to be drilled to what’s called “first water,” meaning the driller stops drilling once he hits water, says John Doyle, a tribal elder and water quality project director at Little Big Horn College. This is a problem: water at the top of the groundwater table is more likely to be contaminated with metals, farm overflow or septic waste. With wells costing about $20 to $30 per foot to drill in Montana, there is clear incentive to stop early.
Doyle says they’re finding most wells drilled 10 to 40 feet.
Leonda Levchuk, a spokeswoman for Indian Health Services, says all wells drilled meet state and federal water standards or they are abandoned.
However, a well may test clean one day and contaminated the next. And in the western United States, where it’s drier, water moves more slowly through aquifers, says Joe Ayotte, chief of groundwater quality studies section for the U.S. Geological Survey.
This leaves more opportunity for elements such as uranium and manganese to pollute the water, he says.
The new system should fix this, but not everyone is optimistic. Doyle, for one, expresses concern over the new system’s cost. “We have been told it would cost users $20 a month but their numbers don’t add up,” says Doyle, who has not been involved with the planning. And costs matter here: per capita income on the reservation is roughly one third of the state’s $23,000 average.
There’s money in the compact to subsidize users the first few years of operation, with the hope that it becomes self-sustaining over time. Larry Blacksmith, director of the tribes water resource department, says the cost to users hasn’t fully been determined.
Moore knew of only one example where a settlement hit cost-related snags: the Animas-La Plata water settlement for the Ute Nation tribes in Colorado, in which the estimated costs for the new water storage system, completed in 2013, continued to escalate during construction.
“That served as a lesson. The federal government and tribes have been more strategic since,” Moore says.
Regardless of cost, the project is expected to take at least another 10 years. That means people are still drinking bad water.
Researchers testing the water have looked into providing at-home reverse osmosis water treatment systems but most families—about two-thirds—have elevated iron and would also need a water softener because their water is too hard for reverse osmosis.
“By the time you’re treating for all of those [iron, hardness, metals] it’s a big chunk of money,” says Mari Eggers, a research scientist at Montana State University. While reverse osmosis systems for an entire house run from $3,000 to $6,000, sink-mounted units can be had for a few hundred dollars.
But even that is a stretch on the reservation for many families. Eggers, Doyle and others have been providing five-gallon water coolers to families with the worst pollution coming out of their taps. They’ve passed out about 60 coolers so far, with families going to Crow Agency or other municipal water sources to purchase or fill the five gallon jugs for the coolers.
Eggers says it’s unclear how many people are on bottled water.
“A lot of families go buy cases of bottled water at Wal-Mart, or drive around with gallon plastic milk jugs and use that for drinking water,” Eggers says.
“Or shut their eyes and use it for cooking anyhow. [Water] is not always the most pressing issue they cope with.”
Britt Ehrhardt, a spokeswoman with the Indian Health Service, said in an emailed response that since 2014 the agency has provided wells and new water hookups to about 40 homes on the reservation.
Economic and social struggles
The stress of not having clean water to drink or do your laundry comes on top of pervasive social, physical and economic hardships.
A quarter of adults in Big Horn County say they don’t get enough social and emotional support and 10 percent have depression, according to a survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a third of homes in the county suffer from either inadequate plumbing, overcrowding or utility bill struggles.
Forty three percent of children live in single-parent homes, a rate 50 percent higher than in the United States as a whole. Big Horn County’s unemployment rate is more than 15 percent, dwarfing nearby Carbon County’s 4.7 percent rate.
Job options are few, says Emery Three Irons, a Crow member. He’s from Crow Agency, which houses the new tribal hospital, Little Big Horn College, the tribe’s natural resource department and casino.
Three Irons is a proud Crow member, wearing his long black hair in a traditional tight braid that runs halfway down his back. He spends hours on a snowy March day weaving a truck around the sprawling reservation, pointing out the good—like the preserved history at Chief Plenty Coups State Park and the picturesque rivers where anglers descend from all over the world—and the bad, like the persistent unemployment and daily struggle for many of his neighbors and fellow Crow members.
People shuffle in and out of the casino and gas station, but otherwise the town is quiet in late spring. Stray dogs scamper about and trash blows across the town and catches in the trees and porches. Children, fresh out of school, skip rocks through a garbage-strewn field in town where one horse grazes.
More than a third of the 1,800 Crow Agency residents live in poverty.
“Some people work at the (Crow Agency) hospital, the senior center,” Three Irons says, trailing off, at a loss for more examples. “It’s tough.”
Unemployment runs deeper than a lack of jobs. It cuts to the systemic racial inequities burdening tribes across the nation, something Latonna Old Elk, extension project director at Little Big Horn College, refers to as “historical trauma.” Across the United States, unemployment for Native Americans is about 11 percent, double the rest of the country.
There’s no economic infrastructure on the reservation, she says. And tourists “are too scared” to stop on the reservation, fearing for their safety, she adds.
Eric Birdinground, a legislative senator for the Crow Nation’s Legislature, too, points to racial biases. “If I go to [nearby town] Hardin to get a loan, they may give me $1,000. They’ll give a white farmer $200,000,” Birdinground says.
The tribe gets three-quarters of its budget and about 100 jobs from coal mining on the reservation, Birdinground says. Members receive a cut of the coal revenue but a weak market for the fossil fuel has some Crow worried.
The effort to exploit those coal reserves became the focus of a rare fight between tribes earlier this year. The Crow, hoping to tap markets in Asia, sought to build a coal export terminal in northwest Washington state. But the Lummi and other tribes on the Pacific Northwest saw potential damage to historic fishing grounds. In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sided with the Lummi and denied a permit for the new terminal, killing the idea.
“It’s not crisis mode yet,” Three Irons says of the languishing coal markets. “But we’re getting there.”
The water settlement offers hope: $20 million for energy development such as a hydropower dam and clean coal conversion.
And there remains a pride and resiliency among those who are “born and raised” here, like Three Irons, who spoke of sweat lodge sessions and arrow throw competitions, and shared pictures of when he was a featured Crow dancer two years ago at an annual powwow.
Three Irons is a direct descendant of Chief Pretty Eagle, who was, by all accounts, a strong, stubborn chief and a counterweight to Chief Plenty Coups’ willingness to work with the U.S. government.
In late March, as a dense fog and blowing snow obscured the road, Three Irons weaved the truck slowly up snowy Big Horn Canyon, the four-wheel-drive chugging. As the clouds briefly parted, he pointed out Pretty Eagle Point, a sacred spot where the chief’s remains lay. The point was barely visible.
“I just wanted to make sure you saw it,” Three Irons says.
Youth, science and unity
With the water settlement behind them, the Crow community is now focusing on the next generation and attempting to instill the type of cultural pride that Three Irons has in order to strengthen the future caretakers of their legacy and water.
While elders and university researchers are tackling the big, esoteric questions of water connectivity, on a cold, clear spring afternoon at Crow Agency Public School, fourth-grader Robert had a more simple inquiry: “If we don’t have water, would we be like raisins?”
The bright 9-year old, wearing a sharp fedora (“like Bruno Mars wears”) and a SpongeBob Squarepants shirt that says “Awesome,” is part of the school’s “Guardians of the Living Water” after-school program.
Vanessa Simonds, assistant professor of community health at Montana State University who helps lead the program, steered him in the right direction. “No, but our organs wouldn’t work right.”
The program’s idea is simple: the future of the water is in the hands of the children. In the summer they test springs, visit rivers, learn about ecosystems. Today they’re tracing each other’s bodies, shading 60 percent of the outline blue, representing our bodies’ water content.
“Look at my legs, I look like The Flash!” Robert says, pointing to his traced body.
The hope is that children like Robert will not only learn the importance of clean water for their health and tribal traditions, but also spread the word to family and friends, Simonds says.
Textbooks too often leave out the cultural relevance of water, says Crow Agency Public School principal Jason Cummins. “They go to the river. To the sacred springs. This addresses health needs here and now.”
Many of the tribes that have been most successful in getting their voice heard in resource protection have used education, says Elizabeth Hoover, a Brown University assistant professor and researcher of environmental health and justice in native communities. “If you don’t have people in your community with those science degrees, they [state and federal agencies] don’t see you as qualified,” she says.
One example, Hoover says, is the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York. For years the tribe has dealt with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the St. Lawrence River and the state put fish advisories in effect that said not to eat most of the fish. “From the state’s point of view, less PCB exposure … there, we’ve solved the problem,” Hoover says.
But such advisories don’t take into account the cultural aspects. “The family relations around the culture of fishing, interactions with grandfather, tying nets, interactions on water, language being lost for specific words for color and textures,” Hoover says.
The tribe placed a premium on its members getting science degrees, bolstered its Environment Division, going from one person to a whole department. They helped write the latest fish consumption guidelines, taking into account tribal traditions of catching and eating fish, and created more nuanced rules.
Similarly in Washington state, Coast Salish tribes have a sophisticated agency—the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission—that shares an equal partnership with the state in making management decisions about Salish Sea salmon and other fisheries.
In uniting around salmon, and integrating Western science into their fight for resource rights, Coast Salish tribes have become a major player in Salish Sea policymaking and protection.
“For years it was fragmented jurisdictions, departments of water, departments of land, and, by fragmenting, state and federal agencies were losing the bigger context,” says Emma Norman, chair of the science department and Native environmental science program at Northwest Indian College in Washington state. “When the Coast Salish tribes came together they brought out the relationship to land, to the family, to ancestors, your unborn, future generations to the decision making.”
The Crow are trying to follow the same path. Knaub, as a greenhouse assistant, is trying to reconnect children and the broader tribal community to healthy, locally grown foods.
“Lots of kids don’t know why we live the way we do,” she says. “Maybe if they did, the healing could begin.”
Three Irons has been interning with Doyle and recently got accepted to graduate school at Montana State University. The challenge will be for him and others to instill and honor the reverence for water as a living thing, responsible for their existence, while having honest discussions about some of the problems the reservation faces.
“People probably are more aware now of water issues then they’ve ever been,” Doyle says.
“Most of us took it for granted—if it came out of the tap or came down the stream it was clean, good and safe. Now we know that’s not