EPA proposes Clean Water Act standards for over 250 Tribes

May 4, 2023
The agency has proposed federal baseline water quality standards for Tribal Nation waterways, affecting over 250 Tribes.

The U.S. EPA has proposed federal baseline water quality standards for waterbodies on Indian reservations that do not have Clean Water Act standards.

All states and 47 Tribes have established standards consistent with that goal. However, the majority of U.S. Tribes with Indian reservations lack such water quality standards (WQS). This proposal would extend the same framework of water quality protection that currently exists for most other waters of the United States to waters of over 250 Tribes.

If finalized, the proposal would safeguard water quality on Indian reservations until Tribes are able to adopt their own CWA standards for their water bodies. EPA estimates this proposed water quality standard will increase protections for 76,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1.9 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and other open surface waters within Indian reservations, protecting aquatic life and the health of over half-a-million residents living within reservation boundaries.

“President Biden has made it clear: all people deserve access to clean, safe water. Today’s proposal is a monumental step forward in our work with Tribal governments to ensure precious water resources are protected,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Establishing federal baseline water quality standards, and implementing them in consultation with Tribal governments, will help support Tribes’ interests in protecting and improving waters that are essential to thriving communities, vibrant ecosystems, and sustainable economic growth.”

Water quality standards define the goals for the condition of a water body by (1) designating its uses, such as fishing and swimming, (2) establishing maximum levels (or water quality “criteria”) for pollutants that protect those uses, and (3) outlining policies that protect water quality from degradation. The proposed baseline WQS would provide a common set of designated uses, criteria, and antidegradation policies for Tribal waters, with certain built-in flexibilities to enable EPA to tailor the standards where needed to best protect local circumstances.

The proposal carries out the commitments to protect Tribal water resources outlined in EPA’s 2021 action plan, Strengthening the Nation-to-Nation Relationship with Tribes to Secure a Sustainable Water Future.

“The National Tribal Water Council fully supports federal baseline WQS for all of Indian country not already covered by tribal WQS (TWQS),” said Ken Norton, Chairman for the National Tribal Water Council. “While the Council advocates for tribal environmental self-determination through TWQS, we endorse EPA’s proposed rule that discharges the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribes by filling longstanding regulatory gaps in Indian country, using standards that support the unique traditional and cultural uses indigenous peoples make of aquatic ecosystems.”

The agency will accept comments on this proposal until Aug. 1, 2023. Comments can be submitted here.

EPA will also hold public hearings on June 27 and July 12. More information about the hearings is available here.