For most Nebraskans, drinking a glass of water is as simple as turning on a tap.
But what if that water was orange? What if it smelled of rotten eggs?
For some members of Nebraska’s Native American communities, this is a daily reality. With funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon hopes to change that.
Brewer’s LB 1191 would appropriate $10 million to the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs to improve tribal-owned community drinking water and sewer systems, which would be matched by another $22 million from the tribes. The Santee Sioux tribe would be given $6 million, matched by $16 million. The Omaha and Winnebago tribes each would receive $2 million, matched by $3 million.
Brewer, who is the first Native American representative elected to the Nebraska Legislature, said the bill would allow the use of ARPA funding to finance water treatment facilities in multiple communities.
“Originally the Winnebago was the primary focus but we then found that there are issues with the Santee and the Omaha,” Brewer said. “So, we’re gonna try doing all-encompassing legislation so that we can help all of the communities.”
During a March 3 hearing before the Appropriations Committee, several engineers, tribal representatives and members of the community spoke in favor of the bill.
Kameron Runnels, vice chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation Tribal Council, described long-term problems with the taste and smell of the community’s water supply.
“Over the years, I think community members knew there was an issue with our water because it had a bad smell or was discolored,” Runnels said. “This issue has been brought up time and again with government officials but we never received any kind of aid or guidance or assistance to help solve this water crisis.”
Community members are heavily dependent on bottled water, Runnells said. But some cannot afford it and the local grocery store has difficulty keeping up with demand. When it runs out, the closest supermarket is an hour away.
Even with bottled water to drink, community members must still cook, clean and bathe with the contaminated water, Runnels added.
“We always hear the phrase ‘Water is life’ among our people,” he said. “Yet, we can’t even fill up a glass of water from our kitchen sink.”
Victoria Kitcheyan, chairwoman of the Winnebago tribe, shared similar stories of discolored and foul-smelling water.
“When a bath smells like rotten eggs and it’s discolored, that is not the tub that you want to put your loved one in – your elderly mother, your infant child or maybe yourself,” she said.
According to Clinton Powell, civil engineer for the Santee Sioux tribe, the community water supply contains dangerously high levels of manganese. In 2019, the EPA issued a “Do Not Drink” order to the community. Powell said high manganese levels can be especially dangerous for infants – leading to higher rates of infant mortality and blue baby syndrome.
Ron Nohr, who has worked as a civil engineer with the Winnebago Tribe for 26 years, said the community has serious problems with sodium calcium, manganese, sulfates and total dissolved solids. Nohr also said the water’s hardness is about double the maximum contaminant levels for desirable household consumption water.
Jerry Henscheid, utility director and water operator for the Omaha Tribe, said that 2018 tests had revealed high levels of radium and manganese in the community’s water supply.
The Omaha Tribe would also like to use funding for an additional groundwater well to meet daily demand.
Powell said the funds allocated to the Santee Sioux would be used as part of a larger project to bring in treated surface water from South Dakota. The tribe received authorization for congressional funding after two studies in 2008 of the area’s long-term water resource needs. Powell anticipated that the tribe would receive additional funding from Indian Health Services, USDA Rural Development and other sources. This water would supply the Santee Sioux tribe and other communities in north central Nebraska.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill.
Brewer said the bill is a chance to right an obvious wrong.
“We’re looking at building huge ditches on the Colorado border and race tracks and a lot of things that are just a good idea – maybe,” he said. “But, they’re not essential to day to day life. This is.”