Hand filling a glass with water from a faucet.

Nebraska Santee Sioux Tribe hopeful after years of unusable tap water

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Deborah Van Fleet

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(Nebraska News Connection) Members of the Nebraska Santee Sioux Tribe hope a solution to their five-year water ordeal may be on the way.

Their tap water has been unusable for drinking or cooking since 2019, when unsafe manganese levels led the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a "no drink" order.

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Kameron Runnels, vice chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation, said a bill passed in the Nebraska Legislature allows them to tap into the state's Water Sustainability Fund for possibly as much as $20 million, although it is not a long-term solution. Ultimately, the tribe hopes to connect to the Randall Community Water District in South Dakota, which will cost roughly $53 million.

"Connecting to that water system would provide us that generational change to our water system and give us clean water for the next, who knows, maybe forever," Runnels explained.

The tribe is waiting to hear the status of its Water Sustainability Fund application, and a $20 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant it applied for more than a year ago. For now, they continue to provide bottled water for the 800 members who reside on tribal lands, at a cost of nearly $15,000 a month.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs grant that covered the water costs for about a year recently ran out, but Runnels said they were just awarded a grant from the Omaha-based Sherwood Foundation which should cover another year of bottled water. He noted nobody knows why the manganese levels are so high and pointed out the Indian Health Service went to great lengths to try to find available safe water.

"They used ground-penetrating radar, using airplane flights, looking for pockets of water all over our tribal lands," Runnels recounted. "They did exploratory drilling in about 20 different sites but they could never find quality or quantity of water."

Runnels added the Water Sustainability Fund and the attention they are getting from state and federal lawmakers has been encouraging. He regrets other Nebraska Tribes were not helped by the new state law and said water issues are rampant among the country's Indian population.

"Somewhere around 50 percent of tribal households have some kind of water quality situation," Runnels reported. "They either don't have water or they just don't have clean drinking water."