Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure:

Opportunities Exist to Enhance Federal Agency Needs Assessment and Coordination on Tribal Projects

GAO-18-309: Published: May 15, 2018. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2018.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Anne-Marie Lasowski Fennell
(202) 512-3841
fennella@gao.gov

 

J. Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Tens of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives do not have safe drinking water or wastewater disposal in their homes, which may negatively affect their health.

We found that the Indian Health Service (and other federal agencies that fund tribal water projects) spent about $370 million on these projects in 2016. However, they didn't always prioritize projects in areas that lacked safe drinking water or wastewater disposal.

We recommended that IHS and the Department of Agriculture update their processes to prioritize tribal water infrastructure projects in communities that currently lack safe drinking water and wastewater disposal.

Construction of community drinking water and sewer lines in Eek, Alaska (April 2017)

Photograph of construction crew installing drinking water and sewer transmission lines.

Photograph of construction crew installing drinking water and sewer transmission lines.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Anne-Marie Lasowski Fennell
(202) 512-3841
fennella@gao.gov

 

J. Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Federal agencies have identified several billion dollars in existing and future tribal drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs. Specifically, the Indian Health Service (IHS) worked with tribes to identify, in fiscal year 2016, an estimated $3.2 billion in water infrastructure projects to address existing sanitation deficiencies in Indian homes, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified an additional $2.4 billion in future tribal drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. However, IHS could enhance the accuracy of its information about the water infrastructure needs of some Indian homes. In February 2018, the database that IHS uses to track Indian homes' sanitation deficiencies showed that about one-third of the homes (138,700) had no deficiency. However, because the database does not provide IHS with a way to record if a home's deficiency has been assessed, IHS could not determine whether these homes had no deficiency or if they had not yet been assessed to identify a deficiency. IHS officials stated that improving the database's accuracy would be beneficial. By implementing a way to indicate in its database whether these homes' deficiencies have been assessed, IHS could also more efficiently address any deficiencies in these homes.

Federal agencies provided about $370 million for tribal drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2016, including some projects to address what the agencies identified as the most severe sanitation deficiencies (i.e., communities that lack safe drinking water or wastewater disposal). IHS and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies direct the agencies to fund tribal projects that address these deficiencies. However, agency scoring processes may not always prioritize the projects that address them:

IHS assigns points to projects using eight scoring factors, including sanitation deficiency and cost. Based on GAO's review of IHS documents and interviews with agency officials, IHS's process for selecting projects can discourage funding some projects that address the most severe sanitation deficiencies, especially those with a relatively high cost per home. As a result, some projects to serve homes without water infrastructure can remain unfunded for many years. IHS officials said the scoring factors balance a number of interests, and the agency is looking to improve the extent to which it funds projects that address these deficiencies.

USDA uses a different set of scoring factors to assign points when evaluating project applications for its tribal water program, including rural population and income levels. However, USDA does not have a scoring factor to assign points to a project based on whether it will serve homes that lack safe drinking water or wastewater disposal, as it does with another program with similar goals. Instead, USDA officials said they use discretionary points to score projects on this basis, but these points may not be awarded at all. As a result, USDA may not have reasonable assurance that it consistently evaluates project applications in a way that aligns with agency policy to fund projects that address the most severe sanitation deficiencies.

By IHS reviewing and USDA updating their scoring processes, the agencies could have more assurance that the projects they fund address the most severe sanitation deficiencies in Indian communities.

Why GAO Did This Study

Tens of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives do not have safe drinking water or wastewater disposal in their home—referred to as needs arising from a sanitation deficiency—at a higher percentage than the general population, according to IHS. Among other things, IHS assesses homes, either individually or by reviewing public water systems, to determine any deficiencies. Seven agencies, including IHS, EPA, and USDA, have programs that provide drinking water and wastewater infrastructure assistance to Indian tribes.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts to provide water infrastructure assistance to Indian tribes. This report examines, among other objectives, the extent to which selected federal agencies (1) identified tribes' drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs and (2) funded tribal water infrastructure projects, including tribes' most severe sanitation deficiencies. GAO reviewed agency data on tribal needs, analyzed agency funding data for tribal water infrastructure projects, reviewed agency policy documents, and interviewed agency officials and officials from 22 tribes representing different geographic locations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 16 recommendations, including that (1) IHS develop a way to indicate in its database if homes' deficiencies have been assessed and (2) IHS and USDA review and update project scoring processes. IHS agreed with these recommendations, and USDA proposed an approach for addressing the recommendation on scoring, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell or J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, IHS's Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction issued a memo to its Area Directors directing them to identify additional eligible Indian homes that may have existing deficiencies to include in HITS. The memo directed Area Offices to use existing staffing resources to leverage their annual efforts to gather sanitation needs data, in collaboration with tribes, to identify any additional homes. In December 2019, IHS officials stated that, as a result of implementing the 2018 memo, Area Directors had increased the number of eligible homes that they identified in 2019. We will continue to monitor the results of IHS's actions.

    Recommendation: The Director of IHS should implement a targeted, resource-efficient method to identify additional eligible Indian homes that may have existing deficiencies to include in IHS's Home Inventory Tracking System (HITS). (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Indian Health Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2019, IHS had developed a mechanism in HITS to indicate whether a home currently classified as deficiency level (DL) 0 had been assessed. IHS stated that it has eliminated the category of DL 0 from HITS; in its place, it created a new category of "Pending Assessment" for those homes that are in HITS but that have not been assessed. IHS also came up with a way to prioritize the homes in the Pending Assessment category based on their eligibility to receive assistance from IHS. Homes currently in HITS that have a DL 0 and received service through the Sanitation Facilities Construction Program from 2015 through today will be reassigned a DL 1 to indicate the deficiencies are only associated with routine operations and maintenance. IHS stated that the changes to HITS have been implemented and shared a proposal of how it will distribute the former DL 0 homes across the new categories. We will evaluate IHS's actions after they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Director of IHS should implement a mechanism to indicate in HITS whether each home with a deficiency level of 0 has been assessed. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Indian Health Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As part of its reassessment of the point distribution across the scoring factors, in 2018 and 2019 IHS consulted with tribes and analyzed various options for changing the point distribution. We have asked IHS to provide additional information about its reassessment efforts. We will evaluate IHS's actions after we receive the additional information.

    Recommendation: The Director of IHS should reassess the point distribution across the Sanitation Deficiency System scoring factors as part of its program guidelines update, in light of trade-offs between funding projects that address the most severe sanitation deficiencies and projects that meet other needs. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Indian Health Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of January 2020, USDA stated it would prefer to use its discretionary points under its existing regulations to implement this scoring factor instead of making a regulation change to do so. USDA stated that using existing flexibility in the regulations could meet the intent of the recommendation more quickly than by permanently changing the regulation. USDA stated that it has established policy guidance to states that addresses scoring for projects with health and sanitation risks. We will monitor the actions that USDA has taken in response to this recommendation and evaluate them when complete.

    Recommendation: The Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development should implement a scoring factor that awards points for proposed Native American program grant projects that address health risks from a lack of access to safe drinking water and wastewater disposal, as it does with the Colonias grant program. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2018, section 306D of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act was amended to authorize USDA to award Rural Alaska Village grants to Alaska Native villages. However, the new statutory language did not identify municipalities as eligible recipients. In April 2019, USDA stated that the agency did not intend to award Rural Alaska Village grants to municipalities in the future. The agency provided documentation that it did not award Rural Alaska Village grants to municipalities in fiscal years 2017, 2018, or 2019. In June 2019, USDA's Alaska State Office communicated to its area staff that municipalities are not eligible recipients of Rural Alaska Village grants. We believe USDA's actions sufficiently satisfy this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development should ensure that all Rural Alaska Village grants are awarded only to recipients authorized by law or seek authority to award grants to municipalities and Alaska Native villages. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2018, section 306D of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act was amended to authorize USDA to award Rural Alaska Village grants to Native villages as defined in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). In April 2020, USDA amended the definition of Native villages in the Rural Alaska Village Grant program regulations so that it uses the ANCSA definition of Native village, making the regulatory definition consistent with USDA's authority.

    Recommendation: The Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development should amend the Rural Alaska Village Grant program regulations so that they are consistent with USDA's authority. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2019, IHS had reviewed the 2011 task force report and summarized actions taken and challenges associated with implementing the remaining recommendations. IHS stated that it anticipated discussing its summary with the other members at a future tribal infrastructure task force meeting. We will evaluate IHS's actions when they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Director of IHS, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should review the 2011 task force report and identify and implement additional actions to help increase the task force's collaboration at the national level. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Indian Health Service

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA had discussed the 2011 task force report with the other member agencies to identify and implement additional actions to increase collaboration at the national level. EPA published a summary matrix of relevant funding sources on the task force website and compiled a draft document summarizing actions the task force member agencies have taken to implement recommendations from the 2011 report. We will continue to monitor EPA's actions in response to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should review the 2011 task force report and identify and implement additional actions to help increase the task force's collaboration at the national level. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In July 2019, the task force member agencies met to discuss the status of the recommendations in the 2011 task force report. The agencies each agreed to compile information about the actions they had taken and consider new actions in 2020. USDA stated in December 2018 that the task force agencies had made progress in developing efficiencies in environmental review processes and with online tribal resources and training, in addition to other areas. We will evaluate USDA's actions after the task force has compiled all actions taken in response to the 2011 report and evaluated what further actions or responses should be conducted.

    Recommendation: The Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should review the 2011 task force report and identify and implement additional actions to help increase the task force's collaboration at the national level. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2019, the task force members had agreed to jointly consider the actions they have taken from the 2011 report and to discuss additional actions they could take to increase collaboration at the national level. We will evaluate HUD's actions once they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Native American Programs, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should review the 2011 task force report and identify and implement additional actions to help increase the task force's collaboration at the national level. (Recommendation 10)

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2018, Reclamation met with other members of the task force and the agencies reviewed and discussed the 2011 task force report recommendations. As of December 2019, the task force members had agreed to jointly consider the actions they have taken from the 2011 report and to discuss additional actions they could take to increase collaboration at the national level. We will evaluate the agency's actions once they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Reclamation, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should review the 2011 task force report and identify and implement additional actions to help increase the task force's collaboration at the national level. (Recommendation 11)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: Bureau of Reclamation

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2019, IHS headquarters hosted a meeting that included staff from IHS Areas, EPA headquarters, and EPA regions to discuss additional mechanisms to increase collaboration, including best practices for identifying projects for joint funding collaborations. In addition, IHS and the other tribal infrastructure task force members agreed to jointly draft a memo for distribution to their field offices that would include contact information for other member agencies and encourage interagency coordination. We will evaluate IHS's remaining actions to satisfy this recommendation when they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Director of IHS, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should direct IHS area offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration. (Recommendation 12)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Indian Health Service

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: In December 2018, USDA stated that it would send a memo to its state directors and program directors encouraging them to coordinate with tribal governments, IHS, EPA, and other members of the tribal infrastructure task force on funding infrastructure projects. As of December 2019, task force members had drafted a joint memo to distribute to their field offices encouraging additional coordination. We will evaluate USDA's actions in response to this recommendation once they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should direct USDA state offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration. (Recommendation 13)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  14. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2020, EPA and other task force members signed a memorandum directing their regional offices to reach out and work with their counterparts in other agencies to increase the level of collaboration in the provision of safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The memo also included links to online sources of contact information for regional staff to use when identifying their counterparts to facilitate collaboration. In April 2020, EPA distributed the memo to its regional drinking water program managers. In light of these actions, we are closing this recommendation as implemneted.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should direct EPA regional offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration. (Recommendation 14)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  15. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, HUD's Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) stated that it would encourage ONAP Area Offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration, in cooperation with the other task force members. As of December 2019, task force members agreed to jointly draft a memo for distribution to their field offices that would include contact information for other member agencies and encourage interagency coordination. We will evaluate HUD's actions once they are complete.

    Recommendation: The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Native American Programs, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should direct HUD regional offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration. (Recommendation 15)

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  16. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2018, the Bureau of Reclamation's Native American and International Affairs Office sent a memo to Reclamation's regional offices encouraging them to work with other agencies and tribal organizations to increase the level of collaboration for needs assessments and specific drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Reclamation provided contact information for other federal agencies and tribal organizations in each region to facilitate the additional collaboration. In light of these actions, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Reclamation, in cooperation with other members of the tribal infrastructure task force, should direct Reclamation regional offices to identify and pursue additional mechanisms to increase their collaboration. (Recommendation 16)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: Bureau of Reclamation

 

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