Montana State University

MSU, Little Big Horn College researchers receive grant to address well water issues on Crow Reservation

June 23, 2016 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

John Doyle, Emery Three Irons and Mari Eggers sample water from a spring in Pryor, Montana. Many springs are also used as drinking water sources. Photo courtesy Antonie Dvorakova.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN — Researchers from Montana State University and Little Big Horn College have received an approximately $500,000 grant to address well water issues on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana.

In conjunction with the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee and Little Big Horn College, the researchers will use the funds to continue home well water testing, conduct surveys about well water uses and well head protection, and educate well owners about the quality of their well water and any associated health risks. Additional grant funding will provide home water coolers for free to participating families with unsafe well water.

The researchers’ work is part of a collaboration with the University of New Mexico, which received a five-year, $5 million award from the National Institutes of Health and Environmental Protection Agency to open a Center for Native American Health Equity Research. Through a consortium of institutions including MSU and Little Big Horn College, the center will work with local communities to better understand ways to improve environmental conditions for vulnerable populations. Specifically, it will examine how contact with metal mixtures from abandoned mines affects rural Native American populations through exposures related to inadequate drinking water infrastructure, reliance on local foods and other uses of local resources to maintain their traditional lifestyle and culture.

The new data researchers obtain from Crow will be added to current maps of well water contamination and will be connected to Indian Health Service data about well depths. In collaboration with colleagues from the University of New Mexico, researchers will analyze the information with a goal of providing a better understanding of which well locations are at risk from metals contamination. 

Researchers will then present the information at public meetings held on the Crow Reservation. Findings will also be posted in public places and shared with tribal administrators, hospitals and community members. Ultimately, lessons learned in assessing, communicating and mitigating risks from metals contamination in home well water will be shared with tribal partners and other project staff to develop guidance for other tribal and rural Western communities. More information on the dates and times of the public meetings will be forthcoming.

Inequities in access to public water systems lead to reliance on unregulated drinking water, according to Mari Eggers, a research scientist with the MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering.

“The U.S. Geological Survey’s nationwide study found that 15 percent of our population lack access to regulated drinking water from public systems. For our tribal partners, Navajo and Cheyenne River Sioux, this rate can exceed 30 percent, and on the Crow Reservation, the USGS estimates well usage at 40 to 60 percent,” Eggers said. “Our overall goal is to improve community health by educating families about the health risks of drinking and cooking with metals-contaminated well water, and by providing them with safer alternatives.”

In addition to Eggers, researchers from MSU and Little Big Horn College involved with the project include Deborah Keil and Jean Pfau from the MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology within the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science; John Doyle from Little Big Horn College and the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee; and MSU graduate student Emery Three Irons, who is a member of the Apsaalooke Nation. Crow tribal members Sara Young and Myra Lefthand, as well as MSU College of Engineering Associate Dean Anne Camper, serve as advisers to the project.

The multidisciplinary research is intended to mitigate and prevent health disparities driven by environmental causes. It is expected to focus on understanding the relationships between biological, chemical, environmental and social factors, Keil said.

Keil noted that Native American communities in the United States are concentrated in the western part of the country, with 12 western states having the highest percentages of Native Americans. 

“The objective of the present partnership is to identify and reduce health effects attributed to metal contaminants in drinking well water with our partnering tribal communities,” she said. “Specific to the Crow community, we will examine health risks and follow up with free health screenings to community members. We are concerned that there is an increased exposure to mixtures of metal contaminants in well water in Crow and our partnering tribal communities, and that this exposure may lead to changes in long-term health.”

“Exposures to harmful contaminants in low-income communities is an ongoing problem in our country,” said Michael Slimak, director of EPA’s sustainable and healthy communities’ research program. “With the support of these centers of excellence, EPA is working to address this issue and protect human health.”

Additional universities to receive funding for centers include Harvard University and Boston University; Johns Hopkins University; University of Arizona; and University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

To request well testing on the Crow Reservation, or for additional information, contact Doyle at (406) 638-3155.

Contact: Deborah Keil, (406) 994-4778 or deborah.keil@montana.edu; Mari Eggers, (406) 994-3064 or mari.eggers@montana.edu; or John Doyle, (406) 638-3155 or doylej@lbhc.edu