Published: Aug. 2, 2023 By

On July 19, 2023, Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Colorado House Representative Joe Neguse, and New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich introduced the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023,1 which ramps up critical funding for Tribal clean water initiatives across the country. Access to clean water is a fundamental human right and yet 48 percent of households on Native American reservations do not have clean water and adequate sanitation.2 The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act would address this gap by increasing “funding through the Indian Health Service, United States Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Reclamation to support water infrastructure projects in Tribal communities and help provide clean water to the large number of Native American households who currently lack access.” The 2023 version of the bill was revised from its 2021 predecessor to reflect the need for “more technical assistance to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding.”3

Tribal advocates have been advocating for additional funding to remedy the lack of access to clean drinking water, which threatens community health and economic prosperity.  “Native American households are 19 times more likely” than white households to lack complete indoor plumbing.4 This severe disparity is incompatible with the United States’ promise “to secure the permanent prosperity and happiness of” the Navajo and other Tribes.5

A 2021 report, Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin, summarizes the primary barriers Tribes regularly face:

  • “Native American households are more likely to lack piped water services than any other racial group;”6
  • “Inadequate water quality is pervasive in Indian country;”7
  • Existing water infrastructure is often deteriorating or inadequate, and often prohibitively expense to maintain.8

These barriers are persistently present in the lives of many Native Americans, transforming routine, everyday processes into challenges, that, in and of themselves, have cascading consequences. For example, many residents on the Navajo Nation must regularly haul water—sometimes from unregulated or contaminated sources—in order to drink, bathe, cook, and/or clean in their own homes.9 “For adults, water hauling comes at the expense of paid work, household chores, childcare, and even leisure. School-age children lose time from school, homework, or play.”10

Among other provisions, the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act is meant to improve access to water services by:

  • Expanding the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development’s authority to include grants and loans to support technical assistance for the development, use, and control of water, eliminating matching contribution requirements and the need to demonstrate inability to finance,11 and appropriating an additional $100 M for each fiscal year 2024 through 2028 for these purposes ($500 million total);12
  • Appropriating an additional $30 M for fiscal years between 2024 through 2028 for the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development Communities Facility Grant and Loan Program for technical assistance ($150 million total);
  • Appropriating an additional $20 M for Indian Health Service for each of fiscal years 2024 through 2028 “to construct, improve, extend, or otherwise provide and maintain essential sanitation facilities, including domestic and community water supplies and facilities, drainage facilities, and sewage-disposal and waste-disposal facilities, for” structures “essential to the life of a Native community”($100 million total);13
  • Appropriating an additional $30 M for Indian Health Service for each of fiscal years 2024 through 2028 to provide technical assistance ($150 million total);
  • Appropriating an additional $100 M for each of fiscal years 2024 through 2028 “for the operation and maintenance of water facilities serving Native communities”14 ($500 million total);
  • Appropriating an additional $18 M for each of fiscal years 2024 through 2028 for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance Program15 ($90 million total)

The Act also removes unnecessary limitations that work against community infrastructure investments. For example, at the moment, Indian Health Service’s Sanitation Facilities Construction Program funds can be used to design and construct water, wastewater, and solid waste facilities. IHS can also use funds to make water connections to other important community facilities like nursing homes and schools, but IHS has declined to do so. The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act would direct IHS to make those connections and provides funds to support those efforts.16

Legislative efforts like the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act are critical to ensure the effectiveness of the unprecedented investments of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (sometimes referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) and the Inflation Reduction Act. While Congress approved funding for Tribal water infrastructure in both Acts, many Tribes do not have the human resources or technical capacity to access and utilize the funded programs. The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act will bridge the gap so that Tribes can put these investments to good use for their communities.

In 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. One of the many initiatives established by the order was the Justice40 Initiative, which requires that 40% of investments made in critical clean water infrastructure and other climate change-related areas would “flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”17 Whether the Biden Administration will successfully fulfill its commitment is yet to be seen, but the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act would be consistent with the Justice40 Initiative’s theme. The Act’s focus—water infrastructure for Tribal communities that have been chronically marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution —is exactly the type of investment that Justice40 seeks to address.

List of Resources


1 Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023, S.2385, 118th. Cong. (2023), https://www.bennet.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/a/6/a6fb5c6f-eac9-4d4e-9541-d1ba7c1f8ab8/64B158C296583B7B80A3A39962959A78.tribal-acccess-to-clean-water-act-bill-text.pdf [hereinafter Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023]. See also S.2385 – A Bill to Provide Access to Reliable, Clean, and Drinkable Water on Tribal Lands, and for Other Purposes, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/2385 (last visited July 26, 2023); H.R.4746 – To Provide Access to Reliable, Clean, and Drinkable Water on Tribal Lands, and for Other Purposes, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-bill/4746 (last visited July 26, 2023).

2 Heather Tanana et al., Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin (2021) at v, https://tribalcleanwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/WTI-Full-Report-4.20.pdf.

3 Bennet, Heinrich, Hickenlooper, Neguse Introduce Bill to Expand and Improve Access to Clean Water in Tribal Communities, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colo. (July 19, 2023), https://www.bennet.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2023/7/bennet-heinrich-hickenlooper-neguse-introduce-bill-to-expand-and-improve-access-to-clean-water-in-tribal-communities.

4 DigDeep & U.S. Water All., Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States (2020) at 22, https://www.digdeep.org/s/Dig-Deep_Closing-the-Water-Access-Gap-in-the-United-States_DIGITAL_compressed-2hyx.pdf.

5 Treaty Between the United States of America and the Navajo Tribe of Indian art. XI, Sept. 9, 1849, 9 Stat. 974. See also Treaty with the Apache art. XI, July 1, 1852, 10 Stat. 979.

6 Tanana et al., supra note 2, at 2.

7 Id.

8 Id. at 2–3.

9 Amicus Brief at 4; DigDeep & the U.S. Water All., Draining: The Economic Impact of America’s Hidden Water Crisis (2022) at 45, https://www.digdeep.org/s/Draining_-The-Economic-Impact-of-Americas-Hidden-Water-Crisis-FULL-REPORT.pdf.

10 DigDeep & the U.S. Water All., supra note 12, at 45.

11 Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023 §4(e).

12 Id. §4(b).

13 Id. §5(b), (c).

14 Id. §5(e)(2).

15 Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities, Fact Sheet, Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023 (2023), https://tribalcleanwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Fact-Sheet-2023-legislation.pdf.

16 Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023, §5(b) (2023).

17 Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, 86 Fed. Reg.7,619, 7,632 (Feb. 1, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/.

Download Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2023 here.