Sovereignty isn’t what’s on paper, it’s what flows through taps and rivers
America is slowly awakening to the dire state of tribal water and sewer systems. Access to drinking water and sanitation services are severely limited on many reservations, and where such systems exist, many are in poor shape. A couple years ago the first systematic study of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) implementation for tribal facilities yielded alarming results: tribal systems violated the SDWA 57% more and the CWA 23% more than similar non-tribal facilities. The disparities extended to enforcement, too: formal SDWA enforcement was 12% lower and CWA inspections 44% less frequent for tribal facilities. Evidence of systemic environmental injustice is seldom so glaring.
But there is hope. A new study offers promising evidence for a way to tackle the daunting challenge of tribal water systems. This time instead of comparing tribal and non-tribal systems, Mellie Haider and I looked at differences across tribal facilities to see whether regulatory institutions might hold the key to better environmental management in Indian Country. To understand why, we have to start with the foundations of federal environmental regulation and the peculiar legal status of Indian nations.
Environmental federalism & tribal governance
The landmark laws of the 1970s that form the core of American environmental protection (e.g., the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, SDWA, CWA) were built with a system of federal-state cooperative implementation. Under these laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets rules, and states are responsible for implementation and enforcement of those rules for the facilities operating in their jurisdictions.
Thing is, tribes are sovereign nations under the U.S. Constitution, and so they—and, by extension, their water/sewer systems—are not subject to state laws. Oddly, the major environmental laws of the 1970s made no explicit provision for regulation of tribal facilities. As a result, tribal water and sewer systems operated in a regulatory vacuum well into the 1980s.
Introducing tribal primacy
Beginning in the Reagan Administration, a series of amendments and executive orders extended federal environmental laws to tribal lands and gave EPA direct implementation authority over them. Some tribal officials successfully lobbied Congress to treat tribes as states for regulatory purposes. With these new rules, tribes may apply to take primary implementation responsibility, or “primacy,” under federal environmental laws. Tribes applying for primacy authority must demonstrate to EPA that they have the administrative capacity to handle regulatory enforcement.
What difference would implementation primacy make to tribal environmental regulation?
On one hand, tribes might engage in a “race to the bottom,” loosening or neglecting environmental rules in order to avoid regulatory costs and improve economic output. But a race‐to‐the‐bottom logic makes little sense for American Indian tribes with respect to environmental regulation. Already occupying the proverbial “bottom,” tribes have little reason to shirk regulatory compliance in a race there.
On the other hand, tribal primacy might lead to more rigorous enforcement, as tribes seek to improve health while maintaining their traditions and cultures. Federal regulators have few political incentives for devoting scarce resources to enforcement on tribal land, especially when tribes may lack the political strength to demand strict enforcement. At the same time, many tribal governments serve sparsely populated communities under poor economic conditions, leaving tribes with limited access to the human and financial capital necessary to maintain compliance. Regulatory neglect might be the unfortunate (though understandable) result. Tribes with primacy have more control over their own environmental fates. Moreover, primacy can give tribes an important lever in their environmental conflicts with neighboring firms and jurisdictions.*
What difference does primacy make?To understand the impact of implementation primacy on tribal clean water enforcement, we analyzed CWA records for 474 tribal wastewater treatment plants in the United States from 2016-2019. About 15% of these facilities operate under tribal regulatory primacy; the rest are regulated directly by the EPA.** After adjusting for facility size, we found that facilities operated by tribes with primacy were inspected more than twice as often as those regulated by the EPA.†
The enforcement gap between tribal and EPA enforcement is greatest for smaller facilities and declines as facility size grows. Over our three-year period of analysis, a very small facility (design capacity 5,000 gallons per day) received an average of 2.75 more inspections under tribal primacy than under EPA oversight. At a moderately large facility (2.5 million GPD), the difference fell to just 0.24, statistically indistinguishable from zero.
The fact that the biggest differences are in the smallest systems underscores the impact of tribal primacy as an administrative phenomenon: it stands to reason that EPA officials spend their limited resources on larger tribal facilities. But in the water sector, the greatest environmental injustices are often in the smallest, most isolated communities. Our evidence shows that tribal primacy has its greatest impact in those small, isolated communities that are otherwise easily neglected.
Implementation authority over environmental regulation gives tribal governments effective sovereignty. Sovereignty turns from mere legal assertion to real, practical impact when tribal officials have greater control over their own destinies. Along with money for pipes and plants, efforts to improve tribal water systems must build human capital and organizational capacity to operate and regulate those facilities. Recognizing this reality, the EPA and the Indian Health Service, along with Indian organizations like Native American Water Association and Intertribal Council of Arizona, run programs aimed at building tribal capacity. In the long run, empowering and building tribal governance capacity offers perhaps the most promising avenue for improving the environment in Indian Country.
*In fact, we found that tribes with a history of frequent federal litigation were more likely to seek primacy. A history of litigation indicates tribal independence, nationalism, and other political factors related to assertions of sovereignty.
**At the time of our study, only one tribe (the Navajo Nation) held SDWA primacy, so we couldn’t analyze variation in drinking water regulation.
†Our analysis also adjusted for differences in the characteristics of tribes with and without primacy.