Native American water photo

Kathleen Smith and Terri Denomie during a water ceremony on Lake Superior last summer.

LANSING — The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, on the shores of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, is petitioning the federal government to hand it control of setting water quality standards.

It would become the first tribe in Michigan to receive that right, joining 60 other U.S. tribes already granted that authority. Tribes argue that an increased role in setting water regulation allows them to tailor standards to protect important plants and wildlife.

Tribes with that authority already have used it to tackle environmental issues specific to their area, including reducing phosphorus in Florida water, preserving clean water in a Montana lake, forcing upstream users in New Mexico to stop sending waste down the Rio Grande and halting a controversial mine project in Wisconsin.

A Clean Water Act provision allows tribes to take a leading role in establishing uses for water bodies.

Like many tribes that have sought such responsibility, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community— in the Upper Peninsula on the shore of Lake Superior—is already addressing some blowback from state legislators who claim that authority will create a confusing patchwork of regulations.

However, the tribe says the push to regulate the water on its lands is rooted in the goal of shaping regulations to fit its community’s specific needs.

“As a federally recognized tribe, we follow the federal water regulations,” said Stephanie Cree, a water resource specialist in the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. However, she said federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are too broad to effectively meet her community’s needs.

For example, the tribe’s use of wild plants and animals, including waterfowl, fish and berries relies on high-quality water.

A survey by Cree’s department found that close to 90 percent of community members use fish caught from local water for at least part of their food supply. She said they eat an average of 330 grams (about 11.6 ounces) of fish daily, well above Michigan’s recommendations for Lake Superior fish. Those recommendations are consumption advisories on a species-by-species basis and aim to limit exposure to harmful pollutants..

The EPA application says that “pollution of waters within the reservation boundaries is a threat to the political integrity, the economic security and the health and welfare” of the tribe.

It lists agriculture, forestry, illegal dumping of waste, residential development, septic systems and mining exploration as threats to water quality. And it says the tribe must step in because of budget cuts and reduced workforce at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which regulates the state’s water.

Cree said, “We are concerned not only for recreational, but for cultural, ceremonial and subsistence. along with other designated uses. Our community is a fishing community that uses the water for ceremonies, harvesting for food and medicines, and wild rice seeding and harvesting.”

Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed said they consume wild rice, a plant central to the community’s identity. Pollutants, like sulfate from mining, can reduce or eliminate wild rice harvests, which depends on high-quality water, the tribe says.

The application says wild rice was a sign to ancient members of the community to stop their westward migration and begin more than 1,000 years of history in the region.

The right to influence water regulation is part of tribes’ exercising their rights as sovereign governments, and it can’t be understood without knowing two key cases, said Heather Whiteman Runs Him, an attorney with the Native American Rights Foundation.

In a legal battle spanning the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico gained the right to set water regulations for the Rio Grande within pueblo boundaries and what was dumped upstream.

After the ruling, Albuquerque updated its wastewater treatment plant to meet the standards necessary for Pueblo of Isleta’s cultural needs.

The Sokaogon Chippewa Community Mole Lake Band in Wisconsin leveraged its power to put the regulatory brakes on a proposed mine that threatened the quality of water needed to grow wild rice. The tribe regulates its waters as Outstanding National Resource Waters, the most stringent federal regulation allowed.

The Sokaogon Chippewa Community and others later purchased the site and halted its development as a mine.

Given the protracted legal and regulatory struggles of the Pueblo of Isleta and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, it’s unsurprising to find opposition to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s application.

Some comes from the Michigan Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, which passed a resolution opposing the application.

The resolution, which isn’t binding, cited concerns that approval “would inevitably lead to unreasonable consequences, create a patchwork of regulations and be inappropriate for nontribal property owners within and outside of the reservation borders.” It says the state is already doing a good job protecting water.

Republican Sens. Ed McBroom of Vulcan and Curt VanderWall of Ludington sponsored the resolution.

Such challenges are not uncommon but usually unsuccessful, said professor Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the director of Tribal Law and Government at the University of Kansas and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

It’s an opportunity for states to work with tribes that has generally worked really well, she said. “Especially in the state of Michigan, with Flint and water quality issues, I would argue it’s a good thing.”

In a statement to the Senate committee, Tribal Council President Warren Swartz Jr. said, “We think this is an opportunity to work together with the state of Michigan, the federal government and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community to help those clean water standards so my people can live a clean life.”

It hasn’t said what standards it’ll set, though it’s indicated they’ll be based in more than a decade of water monitoring the tribe has conducted.

Cree said, “We want to set standards that fit our community.”

If the EPA approves the tribe’s application, Cree said she hopes other Michigan tribes follow suit. She says tribes themselves have the regional, scientific and cultural knowledge to best set water quality standards.