After no clean drinking water for 4 years, this Native American tribe wants more than sympathy
Native American communities often lack the resources to upgrade drinking and wastewater infrastructure. The Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska is an extreme example — living without safe drinking water for four years.
Over the hills of northern Nebraska and along the banks of the Missouri River lies the village of Santee on the Santee Sioux Nation Reservation.
Home to fewer than 1,000 residents, it’s isolated from Nebraska’s major population centers and almost an hour from the nearest Walmart in Yankton, South Dakota.
For the past four years, the reservation has not had access to safe drinking water.
And for four years, the tribe has been unable to afford the necessary infrastructure to fix the problem.
Kameron Runnels, tribal vice chairman for the Santee Sioux, has been working on securing funding from the state and federal government since the Environmental Protection Agency's initial no-drink order in 2019.
“Everybody's sympathetic,” he said. “But no one has offered the assistance or the guidance that we want, that we need. We’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world. Yet, we have a community right here in our state that can't even drink its own water.”
By April 2020, the wells providing drinking water to Santee had readings of manganese more than 50 times greater than the value considered safe for adults.
While manganese is a naturally-occurring element, exposure to too much can result in problems with memory, attention and motor skills, according to Becky Schuerman, who manages domestic water and wastewater programs for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.
And Schuerman said boiling the water only makes the manganese more concentrated, making it a real challenge to solve.
“In my 10 plus years when I was with the public drinking water program, I do not recall a time that we had, flat out, ‘do not drink the water,’ even if you boil it,” Scheurman said.
Given how rare and severe the situation is in Santee, the long-term health impacts remain unknown, Scheurman said.
The stress of those unknowns weighs heavily on tribal leadership.
“That's what goes into our bodies, you know.” Runnels said. “Who knows what that does to you over 10, 20 years of having to brush your teeth and eat with it? That could be causing some serious damage and it could be taking years off of your life. You don't know.”
‘It’s a racial inequity’
While the Santee are experiencing an especially dire situation, dozens of other tribes across the country also have water access issues, from the Navajo Nation’s battle for water rights in the desert southwest to the Apsaalooke Nation’s wastewater contamination in Montana.
Heather Tanana is a professor at the University of California Irvine who researches tribal water issues and leads the Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities Initiative.
Her research has found that around 48% of households on Native American reservations do not have clean water or adequate sanitation.
“I don't think you can get around saying it's a racial inequity,” Tanana said.
Most Native American communities are in rural areas, which already struggle with outdated water infrastructure. But the urban-rural divide is not the best predictor of whether or not a household has access to clean water in the United States.
“It's race, and Native Americans are the least likely to have water access in their homes than anyone else in the U.S.,” Tanana said.
The Inflation Reduction Act has earmarked money for clean water projects in tribal communities and many tribes already receive funding from the Indian Health Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, most tribes have to access a patchwork of grants from various agencies, each with their own applications and regulations.
Many small tribes, including the Santee, have limited staff resources, which makes it difficult to navigate the complex funding process.
“That's a little challenging or frustrating for some communities to see money out there, but not actually making it on the ground or specifically to their community,” Tanana said.
Even if the water treatment infrastructure is built, maintaining it is often more difficult.
Maintenance requires ongoing staff and financial resources many tribes lack, according to Manny Teodoro, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“You can get money from Uncle Sam And they could write you a check, you could hire a firm, they could come in and build the plant.” Teodoro said. “Now what? That's the hard part.”
In small communities, Teodoro said it can be hard to find people who are qualified to work at water treatment facilities.
“You can't just pull anyone off the street corner and they’ll be capable of running a treatment plant that day,” Teodoro said. “These are skilled jobs and you can't afford to mess them up.”
‘Who’s going to pay for that?’
Santee tribal leadership has looked into several long-term solutions to the water crisis, but each comes with a hefty price tag.
One option involves building a $10 million water treatment facility on the reservation, which would come with a maintenance cost upwards of $200,000 each year.
The treatment facility has a cheaper upfront cost than other options, but it’s a shaky solution, said Santee Environmental Director Alisha Bartling.
“I think the biggest thing for us is not only getting that initial setup, but then it's the operation and the maintenance of the long term,” Bartling said. “How are we going to be able to sustain that? Who's going to pay for that? What are we going to have to change here to be able to make our payments?”
The tribe’s preferred option is to pump pre-treated water from South Dakota across the Missouri River into Santee.
The entire project is estimated to cost $40 million. But Clinton Powell, a civil engineer for the tribe, said it would be the most reliable option in the future.
“We're very confident that that water supply is going to be a high quality water supply source, that you'll know exactly what you're getting for quality and quantity 50 years from now,” he said.
Powell said the pipeline across the Missouri could be used to supply clean water to other small towns in the region, many of which are also in need of costly updates to their water treatment facilities.
But for a reservation of fewer than 1,000 people, the $40 million investment is impossible without outside funding from the state and federal government.
A bill that would provide up to $6 million to Santee was introduced in the Nebraska legislature in 2022, but it was indefinitely postponed. That same session, $20 million was allocated to build a new water treatment facility to accommodate the growth of recreational housing around a Nebraska lake.
Santee tribal leadership has met with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Adrian Smith, a Nebraska Republican, to speak about funding the project.
A spokesperson for Rep. Smith said the House Appropriations Committee allocated $1.75 million for the Santee Sioux water infrastructure request in the 2025 fiscal year. However, that bill must be passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the president before funds can be distributed.
Santee Vice Chairman Kameron Runnels said he appreciates the recognition, but doesn’t expect the full $40 million to arrive any time soon.
“It'd be nice, but to be realistic, we kind of know we're going to have to probably apply for grants and go after some of this stuff on our own,” Runnels said. “We're pretty much on our own anyway, and we have been in this regard.”
For now, the tribe is relying on a $100,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to buy bottled water for tribal members.
That money is expected to run out this winter.
This story first appeared on Nebraska Public Media. This version was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.