Tribal Governments Role in Safe Drinking Water on Tribal Lands

Utility Owner Responsibilities

Tribal governments oversee water system utilities or utility boards. Members of tribal governments play a role in ensuring that their public water systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

For more information on roles and responsibilities please refer to Water System Owner Roles and Responsibilities: Best Practices Guide (PDF)(2 pp, 166 K, About PDF)

Management of Tribal Public Water Systems

Tribal leaders establish a governance structure for the public water system to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), preferably with some autonomy from the tribal government. This governance structure may be an independent utility board or utility director to oversee the utility operations.

Independent governance structures are able to assume many utility-related responsibilities from tribal governments. For example, utility directors or boards typically have the following responsibilities:

  • Financial management and personnel decisions;
  • Training and certification of utility personnel;
  • Community outreach and public notification;
  • Long-term planning; and
  • Emergency response.

Here are some resources that may assist with establishing utility governance and effective utility management.

Compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act

Complying with Drinking Water Regulations - National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs)

NPDWRs are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. Primary standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water. EPA regulations also set testing requirements and list acceptable techniques for treating contaminated water.

These regulations apply to all public drinking water systems throughout the country regardless of ownership, primacy agency or geographical location.

Tribal leaders oversee the utility to ensure compliance with the NPDWRs.

Under the SDWA, EPA has primary enforcement responsibility in Indian country in the absence of tribal primacy. To date, the Navajo Nation is the only tribe that has applied for and received primacy.

Financial Assistance

Tribal governments oversee water system utilities or utility boards. Along with Tribal Utilities, tribal governments are responsible for providing safe drinking water that complies with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

EPA provides technical assistance to tribal water systems through the following programs:

EPA also provides other training and technical assistance to tribes to aid in regulatory compliance.

Tribal Primacy

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Primacy is the process through which states and tribes implement and enforce federal environmental regulations. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA can delegate primacy and grant “Treatment in the Same Manner as a State (TAS)” to tribes meeting certain requirements. These tribes implement programs like the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) and enforce regulations within their jurisdiction.

Since 1976, Congress has appropriated funds under the SDWA for grants to help states develop and implement their PWSS programs.

Because of their unique status, tribes were not eligible to assume primacy in the original Act. Instead, EPA Regions were responsible for primary enforcement authority of the PWSS program in Indian country. Amendments to SDWA in 1986 allowed federally recognized tribes to receive primacy.

To receive primacy for the PWSS program, a tribe must apply for and receive TAS status. The Navajo Nation is the only tribe with TAS status and primacy over the PWSS program. Having primacy, the Navajo Nation enforces SDWA regulations and program requirements for public water systems within their jurisdiction.

EPA Regional offices serve as the primacy agency for tribes that do not have primacy. As primacy agency, EPA directly implements the PWSS program and enforces SDWA regulations.

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What are the advantages and responsibilities of primacy?

Tribal primacy over the PWSS program comes with advantages as well as additional responsibilities.

The advantage of having primacy for the PWSS program is that the tribe takes an expanded role. This role could allow the tribes to more fully exercise their sovereign powers by establishing and enforcing environmental regulations for PWSS within their jurisdiction.

Tribes that assume primacy also take over many of the responsibilities otherwise managed by EPA. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Adopting and implementing the NPDWRs;

  • Enforcing and responding to regulations;

  • Maintaining compliance data systems;

  • Certifying laboratories; and

  • Performing sanitary surveys.

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Some Eligibility Requirements for TAS

Primacy and TAS are sought out in conjunction, not separately. In order to be determined eligible for TAS in the PWSS program, a tribe must meet the following criteria:

  • Be recognized by the Secretary of the Interior;
  • Have a functional tribal government responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the tribal community;
  • Demonstrate that the regulatory functions to be performed in the public water systems are within the Indian Tribal government’s jurisdiction; and
  • Be capable of administering an effective PWSS program consistent with the SDWA and all applicable regulations.

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You will need Adobe Reader to view some of the files on this page. See EPA’s About PDF page to learn more.

Some Additional Resources and Contact Information about Tribal Primacy

The TAS Regulation has more information on TAS eligibility requirements and application procedure. For more information on the process of obtaining TAS for the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) Program, contact your Regional Tribal Drinking Water Direct Implementation Coordinator.

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Tribal Contacts

Search for national and regional program managers and other tribal organizations.