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Water quality suffers on Nebraska tribal lands

An environmental technician collects surface water samples from Lost Creek on the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska  

The United States has one of the safest drinking water supplies in the world, but the percentage of contaminated drinking-water wells on Native American reservations in Nebraska far exceeds national and regional averages, scientists from the University of Arkansas report.

To date, no comprehensive surveys have been conducted that compare water quality on tribal lands to state and national water quality. According to the researchers, the findings in Nebraska may point to a national problem with water pollution on tribal lands.

Since the early 1990s, researchers Shelley McGinnis and Ralph Davis have worked with members of the Santee Sioux tribe and the Omaha tribe in northeastern Nebraska. Both tribes received funds from the Environmental Protection Agency to begin baseline water quality assessment on their reservations.

"When we looked at the data that was being collected, we noticed that it seemed to be higher than the regional average," McGinnis said.

Davis and McGinnis compared the data to national and state water quality statistics. They found that the reservations showed a significantly greater percentage of wells with high levels of nitrate-nitrogen and coliform bacteria. The level of contaminants greatly exceeded the EPA's standard for safe drinking water.

On the Omaha reservation, 24 percent of the wells sampled exceeded EPA standards for nitrate-nitrogen and coliform contamination. On the Santee Sioux reservation, 29 percent of the sampled wells exceeded standard for nitrate-nitrogen and 40 percent exceeded the standard for coliform.

Water samples collected on the Omaha and Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska show higher incidence of contamination than water collected from other wells throughout the state  

Both types of water contamination are associated with a variety of health problems. High nitrate-nitrogen levels are known to cause "baby blue syndrome," a condition that involves breathing difficulty and usually occurs in infants under 6 months old. Recent studies have also associated nitrate-nitrogen levels with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The presence of coliform bacteria in aquatic environments indicates that the water has been contaminated with the fecal material of humans and animals. Health risks include typhoid fever, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis and hepatitis A.

According to the researchers, the pollution sources probably come from animal waste or septic systems. Land-use practices, including the presence of livestock near wells, may also contribute to the problem.

McGinnis explained that many of the wells on reservations are outdated. A cracked well or a well that is too shallow can allow contamination to seep in to the drinking water supply.

Well owners may not have the necessary funds to improve their wells, she added. "Native American tribes often lack the physical infrastructure, institutions, trained personnel and resources to resolve environmental problems," she said. "Drinking bottled water is probably the most available course of action for people to take, [if they find that their wells are contaminated]," said Felix Kitto, an environmental technician for the Santee Sioux reservation who helped collect data for the study. Kitto agrees that "most people on the reservation cannot afford alternatives."

"I don't think the results from our data collection are surprising," Kitto said. "If each tribe did a similar study, I think more than likely their water quality would be similar to our situation."

In the original versions of the Clean Air, Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water and Solid Waste Disposal acts passed in the 1970s and 1980s, reservations were given less funding to attack environmental problems than states received. The inequity is being corrected, the researchers said, and the two tribes are using funding from the EPA and other sources to develop comprehensive environmental programs on their lands.

Nevertheless, lack of funding remains a challenge. "Tribes only get a minimal slice of federal dollars for environmental-management programs," Kitto claims. He is hopeful that current proposals for more funding will be met.

Kitto said collaboration with the EPA and the University of Arkansas has sparked a sound environmental program. "Tribal members have been able to boost their environmental knowledge and employment opportunities within the reservation," he said.

"The goal of these studies is to build tribal self-sufficiency so that the tribes will carry out their own environmental monitoring and management," McGinnis said.

McGinnis hopes to expand the team's research to tribes across the country to have a more comprehensive picture of water quality on Native American reservations.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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University of Arkansas
tribal programs
EPA's Office of water
Coliform bacteria
Nitrate nitrogen

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