Need To Clarify IHS Responsibilities for Maintaining Indian Water and Sanitation Facilities

HRD-80-14: Published: Jul 28, 1980. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 1980.

Additional Materials:


Franklin A. Curtis
(202) 275-5451


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Since 1959, the Indian Health Service (IHS) has spent about $490 million to construct or improve Indian water and sanitation facilities primarily to support Indian housing programs administered by other federal agencies. Legislation enacted in 1959 authorized IHS to transfer operating and maintenance responsibility of these facilities to Indian tribes or communities. As part of a survey conducted of the IHS water and sanitation facilities construction program, seven Indian reservations and nine Alaska Native communities were visited to observe the water and sanitation systems or system components that were not operating effectively.

The tribes or communities had agreed to assume operating and maintenance responsibilities before construction of the facilities and had accepted ownership responsibilities after construction. However, many of them were not willing or financially able to fulfill their agreements. IHS assisted the Indians in operating and maintaining the water and sanitation systems it transferred to them until 1976. At that time, the Department of Health and Human Services' Assistant General Counsel for Public Health concluded that IHS lacked the legislative authority to maintain water and sanitation systems transferred to tribes and communities. These circumstances have posed a dilemma: IHS is responsible for ensuring that adequate health care is provided to Indians and has invested heavily in the construction and improvement of Indian water and sanitation facilities; but it has been told by its General Counsel that it has no authority to maintain the water and sanitation facilities after the Indians accepted ownership responsibilities. The significant IHS capital investment could be lost because of lack of maintenance, and the overall health of the Indians could deteriorate, thereby placing a greater burden on the IHS health care system.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Legislation implementing the recommendation was presented to the President but was pocket vetoed.

    Matter: Congress should address IHS authorities and responsibilities for maintaining transferred sanitation facilities under the Indian Sanitation Facilities Act.


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 16, 2020

Nov 10, 2020

Nov 9, 2020

Nov 6, 2020

Oct 13, 2020

Sep 30, 2020

Sep 9, 2020

Looking for more? Browse all our products here