When John Doyle first noticed signs of trouble in the Little Bighorn River, he was still a young member of the Apsaalooke Nation in southeastern Montana.
Stagnant water would pool in some areas, filling with algae. It wouldn’t even freeze in the cold of winter. Later, catfish would turn up with quarter-size white sores.
Doyle knew something had gone seriously wrong with the river — from which tribal members would drink, swim and practice religious ceremonies.
He took his observations to officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After several months, he went to them again. And again.
Looking back, Doyle, now 68, recognizes he was naive to think the government would take quick action. The tribe’s wastewater was leaching into the river. He now understands that the tests, studies and maze of bureaucratic hurdles to address such water issues take time and money.
Three decades later, Doyle managed to raise enough funds to move and replace the sewage pond and safely separate the sewage pipes from clean water lines, which had been placed side by side. The river still teems, however, with virulent strains of E. coli and nitrates.
Doyle’s experience wrestling with the complex bureaucracy necessary to address water issues is common on Native American reservations. During the past decade, tribal water systems averaged about 60 percent more water-quality violations compared with nontribal water systems, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
A variety of forces work against tribes and their quest to provide clean, safe…
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