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Keweenaw Bay Indian Community takes historic step toward developing water quality standards that contribute to community wellbeing

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members at a clean-up event in 2019.As part of Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week, MI Environment is featuring several articles from the recently-released State of the Great Lakes report. Today's article by Stephanie Cree, of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, highlights the tribe's historic effort that put in place its own clean water standards.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) along the shores of Lake Superior took a historic step this year toward setting independent surface water quality standards for the lakes, rivers and streams that are a key part of the KBIC identity.

The Upper Peninsula community that straddles Keweenaw Bay in Baraga County is the first tribe in Michigan to achieve Treatment as a Sovereign regulatory authority for water quality from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Setting clean water standards ultimately affects the health of Keweenaw Bay and Lake Superior, into which many of the community's streams and rivers flow.

Treatment as a Sovereign permits the KBIC to administer a water quality standards program and certification program for its L'Anse Indian Reservation under the Clean Water Act. The designation is a legal status referring to the transfer of specific authorities from the federal government to federally recognized Indian tribal governments for environmental regulatory programs.

"The KBIC is excited to begin working on the development of water quality standards that will take into account the well-being of our local community," KBIC President Warren "Chris" Swartz said. "By obtaining Treatment as a Sovereign, we will continue building relationships with our local, state and federal partners in protecting our water resources here on the KBIC L'Anse Reservation."

KBIC officials say it is important for tribes to assume authority over their reservation waters because current standards do not apply to many small communities where surface waters are located. The water quality standards KBIC is developing with the help of the USEPA and the state of Michigan will better represent the community it is protecting. Having good water quality is a priority for KBIC political integrity, economic security, food sovereignty and the wellbeing of community members. All of the reservation's water bodies and resources are invaluable and have provided gifts of subsistence and cultural and spiritual benefits to many generations of the KBIC Ojibwa. The USEPA granted the authority to KBIC in April 2020, but it's a status the Tribe has been working toward since 2013.

Before making that application, the Tribe collaborated with the USEPA on water programs since 1999.

"I am pleased to recognize the Tribe's authority to protect rivers and streams on the L'Anse reservation and to safeguard the health and heritage of its community and natural resources," Kurt Thiede, the USEPA Region 5 Regional Administrator at that time said following the KBIC approval. Tribes must meet certain criteria to apply for Treatment as a Sovereign, including federal recognition status, a governing body that exercises legal authority and tribal capability to carry out Clean Water Act obligations.

"With honoring our first treaty with all orders of creation which includes our obligations and connections to the natural environment, it is imperative that we take the next steps in exercising our sovereignty," Swartz said. The process Tribal officials are following to establish water quality standards is rigorous and must be approved in accordance with the Clean Water Act by the USEPA. KBIC first began the process by reviewing state, federal and tribal standards. It then contracted with instructors from Michigan Technological University in Houghton for guidance on refining the standards. The process began approximately five years ago with a fish consumption survey. Tribal authorities used the information from the survey to help set a human health criteria that would be specific to the area where the standards would apply.

The KBIC is also using about 15 years of surface water quality data that has been collected to aid in developing other parts or the water quality standards. In conjunction with the KBIC's application in 2013 for the authority to set water quality standards, it also established the Natural Resources Department to administer environmental programs on the reservation.

Management activities had grown substantially since its fish hatchery began operating in 1988. Department programs include fisheries and fish stocking, surface and groundwater quality, air quality, restoration and brownfields programs, wildlife and wetland stewardship, native plant restoration and garden programs and participation in the binational protection of Lake Superior. With offices in Pequaming and L'Anse, more than 50 staff members implement natural resources programs, serve community needs and participate in research and monitoring in partnerships with government, university and other entities. The KBIC's assumption of authority over the reservation's water resources as well as its natural resource programs will provide the authorities and programs necessary to advance efforts to ensure protection of water resources for future generations. Community members depend upon good quality water for a variety of purposes including fishing, trapping, swimming, boating, gathering, drinking and residential use, and for spiritual and cultural purposes. The health of the water is directly related to the health of the KBIC and the wellbeing of its many plant, fish and wildlife relatives. The KBIC's Natural Resources Department website provides more information about the Tribe's water quality standards program.

Photo caption:  Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members at a clean-up event in 2019.

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