‘Everyone’s sympathetic,’ But after 4 years without safe drinking water, sympathy isn’t enough for the Santee Sioux Nation

Sept. 11, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

Beach visited the Santee Sioux Nation this fall while reporting on the reservation's lack of safe drinking water. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

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Over the hills of northern Nebraska and along the banks of the Missouri River lies the village of Santee on the Santee Sioux Nation Reservation.

Home to fewer than 1,000 residents, it’s isolated from Nebraska’s major population centers and almost an hour from the nearest Walmart in Yankton, South Dakota.

For the past four years, the reservation has not had access to safe drinking water.

And for four years, the tribe has been unable to afford the necessary infrastructure to fix the problem.

Kameron Runnels, Tribal Vice Chairman for the Santee Sioux, has been working on securing funding from the state and federal government since the Environmental Protection Agency's initial no-drink order in 2019.

“Everybody's sympathetic,” he said. “But no one has offered the assistance or the guidance that we want, that we need. We’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world. Yet, we have a community right here in our state that can't even drink its own water.”

By April 2020, the wells providing drinking water to Santee had readings more than 50 times greater than the value considered safe for adults.

Boiling the water only makes the manganese more concentrated.

Exposure to manganese contaminated water can result in problems with memory, attention and motor skills, according to Becky Schuerman, an extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Scheurman said she had never witnessed a no drink order for any Nebraska community through her ten years working for the Nebraska public drinking water program, let alone an ongoing order lasting four years.

Given the rarity and severity of Santee’s situation, the long-term health impacts of manganese exposure could remain unknown, Scheurman said.

The stress of those unknowns weighs heavily on tribal leadership.

“That's what goes into our bodies, you know.” Runnels said. “Who knows what that does to you over 10, 20 years of having to brush your teeth and eat with it? That could be causing some serious damage and it could be taking years off of your life. You don't know.”

Tribal members have used a $100,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to buy bottled water, but Runnels said the money will likely run out sometime this winter.

“I guarantee there's probably households here that can't afford to buy bottled water every week,” he said. “So they're having to use the water out of their faucets, which to me is really heartbreaking.”

Weighing Solutions

Santee tribal leadership has looked into several long-term solutions to the water crisis, but each comes with a hefty price tag. One involves building a $10 million water treatment facility on the reservation, which would come with a maintenance cost upwards of $200,000 each year.

The treatment facility has a cheaper upfront cost than other options, but it’s a shaky solution said Santee Environmental Director Alisha Bartling.

“I think the biggest thing for us is not only getting that initial setup, but then it's the operation and the maintenance of the long term,” Bartling said. “How are we going to be able to sustain that? Who's going to pay for that? What are we going to have to change here to be able to make our payments?”

The tribe’s preferred option is to pump pre-treated water from South Dakota across the Missouri River into Santee.

The entire project is estimated to cost $40 million. But Clinton Powell, a civil engineer for the tribe, said it would be the most reliable option in the future.

“We're very confident that that water supply is going to be a high quality water supply source, that you'll know exactly what you're getting for quality and quantity 50 years from now,” he said.

Powell said the pipeline across the Missouri could be used to supply clean water to other small towns in the region, many of which are also in need of costly updates to their water treatment facilities.

But for a reservation of fewer than 1,000 people, the $40 million investment is impossible without outside funding from the state and federal government.

Unrewarded Requests for Funding

There have been attempts to get the state to pay for Santee’s water crisis, including a 2022 legislative bill that would have provided the tribe with $6 million.

However, that effort was indefinitely postponed after a veto threat from former Gov. Pete Ricketts, according to Powell.

That same session, the Cedar Knox Rural Water Project several miles east of Santee received $20 million in funding from the state to build a new water treatment facility to accommodate the growth of recreational housing along Lewis and Clark Lake.

Current Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen said in his 2023 State of the State address that “Nebraska has more money in our coffers than anyone can believe,” thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act.

But so far, none of that money has made its way to Santee.

Attempts to get funding from the federal government have also come up short, although Santee has gotten the attention of Nebraska U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith.

PHOTO CAPTION: Kameron Runnels (left) speaks with U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith (right) during Smith’s visit to Santee on August 22, 2023. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

In late August, Smith visited the reservation to tour the tribal health care facility, where he was told about the water crisis.

Smith said water infrastructure funding has bipartisan support in Washington and that he would look at a range of solutions.

“I want to make sure that the local entities are the ones making decisions for their community,” Smith said. “I don't want this to be a federal decision that might make things much more complicated.”

The Santee Sioux tribe sent a request to Smith’s office in March for $2 million in federal funding, but it could be several years before Santee sees that money.

A spokesperson for Rep. Smith said the House Appropriations Committee allocated $1.75 million for the Santee Sioux request from the federal Drinking Water State Revolving funding in the initial house version of the Fiscal Year 2025 Interior and Environment appropriations bill.

That bill must be passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by the President before funds can be distributed.

Santee Vice Chairman Kameron Runnels said he hopes the Santee water crisis gets more recognition and financial assistance, but he doesn’t expect the tribe to be given the full $40 million for the water project.

“It'd be nice, but to be realistic, we kind of know we're going to have to probably apply for grants and go after some of this stuff on our own,” he said. “We're pretty much on our own anyway, and we have been in this regard.”

Tribal leadership has said they are open to working with other local water systems to bring a pipeline across the Missouri. But for now, Santee remains on its own.