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 programs to use existing staffing resources to leverage their annual efforts to gather sanitation needs data, in collaboration with tribes, to identify the additional homes. We will evaluate IHS's actions when we receive additional information from IHS regarding the outcome of this directive.

    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: In August 2018, IHS's Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction had developed a draft proposal to address this recommendation that was under review. We will evaluate IHS's action once it's 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: In July 2018, IHS invited tribal leaders to provide written comments on whether IHS should revise the point distribution across the Sanitation Deficiency System (SDS) scoring factors as part of IHS's revision to its SDS program guide. IHS did not propose revising the point distribution in the draft guide that it provided to the tribes. We will evaluate IHS's actions once they have been completed.

    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: In commenting on this report, USDA did not agree or disagree with this recommendation and asked for clarification as to what form of scoring factor would be acceptable to address the recommendation. USDA stated it would prefer to use its discretionary points under its existing regulations to implement the scoring factor. When we confirm the actions that USDA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: Open

    Comments: In commenting on this report, USDA did not concur with this recommendation because, according to the agency, it is operating within its authorities. However, because section 306D of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act only authorizes USDA to award Rural Alaska Village grants to the State of Alaska, we continue to believe that this recommendation is necessary and will monitor USDA's actions to address it.

    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: Open

    Comments: In commenting on this report, USDA did not concur with this recommendation because, according to the agency, it is operating within its authorities. However, because section 306D of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act only authorizes USDA to award Rural Alaska Village grants to the State of Alaska, we continue to believe that this recommendation is necessary and will monitor USDA's actions to address it.

    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 August 2018, IHS had proposed that the task force member agencies develop an action plan to prioritize addressing recommendations from the 2011 report that are relevant to IHS. We will evaluate IHS's actions once 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 October 2018, EPA had begun discussing the 2011 task force report with the other member agencies to identify and implement additional actions to increase collaboration at the national level. We will evaluate EPA's actions once they are complete.

    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 commenting on this report, USDA did not agree or disagree with this recommendation, but requested that we modify the language to remove reference to increasing collaboration at the national level. Because the task force operates at the national level, we continue to believe that this recommendation, as worded, is valid and we will monitor USDA's efforts to address it.

    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: In August 2018, HUD's Office of Native American Programs stated that it would work in cooperation with the other task force members, and in consultation with tribal representatives, to identify and implement additional actions to increase collaboration at the national level as staffing and resources allow. 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. We will evaluate the agency's actions once it identifies and implements additional actions to help increase collaboration at the national level.

    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: In August 2018, IHS stated that it will work with its Area Directors during fiscal year 2019 to increase and better summarize their collaboration with regional task force representatives and technical assistance providers. We will evaluate IHS's actions once 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 commenting on this report, USDA did not agree or disagree with this recommendation, but requested that we modify the language to remove reference to the agency's state offices and regional collaboration. Because USDA's state offices collaborate with other task force member agencies at the regional level, we continue to believe that this recommendation, as worded, is valid and we will monitor USDA's efforts to address it.

    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: Open

    Comments: As of October 2018, EPA was exploring options and opportunities with its regional offices to improve regional interagency collaboration. We will evaluate EPA's actions once they are complete.

    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. 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: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, Interior stated that Reclamation would provide further direction and support to regional officials to encourage an increased level of collaboration as part of ongoing management planning and implementation efforts. We will evaluate Reclamation's actions once they are complete.

    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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