When It Comes to Water, We Are All Close Neighbors

By MJ Eggers, MJ Lefthand, SL Young, JT Doyle and A Plenty Hoops, with contributions from  other team members: UJ Bear Don’t Walk, A Bends, B Good Luck, L Kindness, AKHG McCormick, DL Felicia, E Dietrich, TE Ford, and AK Camper.

Little Big Horn river

Little Big Horn River, Montana. Photo by John Doyle.

Until the 1960s, many families on the Crow Reservation still hauled river water for home use, a practice most of us remember from our childhoods.  As agriculture expanded and river water quality visibly deteriorated, wells and indoor plumbing became available and rural families switched to home well water.

In many parts of the Reservation, this was a hardship, not a blessing: the groundwater tapped for home wells is high in total dissolved solids and often so rich in iron and manganese that it’s undrinkable. The hard water build-up or “scale” also ruins hot water heaters. We have learned that the majority of home wells (55%) have water that presents a health risk, due to mineral or microbial contamination or both.

As a country, we may imagine our citizens have universal access to safe drinking water—but for millions of rural residents with poor quality well water, and who can’t afford cisterns, treatment systems, or all the bottled water they might want—this simply is not the case.  In our communities, people are cooking with poor tasting, contaminated water, and living with the health consequences.

In 2004, Tribal members who were—and still are—passionate about and dedicated to addressing community-wide water quality issues and health disparities joined forces as the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee. They recruited academic partners and Little Big Horn College science majors to help.

We have been working together to research what is contaminating local groundwater and surface waters, what the health risks are from domestic, cultural, and recreational uses of these water sources, and how best to educate the community about the risks.

Archival image of Crow women getting water from river

Crow women getting water for camp from the Little Big Horn River, close to present day Crow Agency, Crow Reservation, Montana. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian (N13758). Photo by Fred E. Miller.

One challenge is that various traditional practices involve respectfully consuming (untreated) river and spring water right from the source. Maintaining these cultural practices “is part of what makes us Crow,” so, instead of expecting people to simply give them up, we are collaborating with the Tribe on pursuing additional funding opportunities to address the pollution sources affecting our rivers and a culturally-important spring.  We are also helping to make clear that traditional uses of river water, including drinking it untreated, need to be considered in planning, risk assessments, and policy decisions.

We are working to restore the health of our rivers and of our community.  We realize it takes passion, commitment, mutual support and a broad-based, grassroots effort.  We have learned that we are all close neighbors when it comes to water.  How we treat our water is the respect we show to our neighbors, and how we would want them to treat us.

About the Authors: MJ Lefthand, SL Young and JT Doyle are members of the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee (CEHSC). The Committee is made up of Crow Tribal members with varied expertise in environmental science, water resources, health, law and culture. MJ Eggers is an academic partner from Little Big Horn College and Montana State University Bozeman.   A Plenty Hoops works for the Crow Tribal Environmental Protection Program.  Additional contributors are members of the CEHSC, academic partners or student interns.

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