The Bighorn River Contamination Near Apsaalooké (Crow)

Tamara Berg:

The Apsaalooké, or Crow, are an Indigenous nation based in Montana. Within the Crow Reservation, these people are fighting, even now, for a basic human necessity. The Crow people lack access to clean water due to pollutants contaminating many of their water supplies. Water tests have shown that these water supplies have at times surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency’s , or EPA, contaminant standards (Final Report, EPA). The Crow have had to deal with major forms of water pollution and still are dealing with the dangers caused by this pollution.

The Bighorn River has always served the Crow Indian Reservation as a major supply of water for the tribe. Tribal elders still tell stories about when they would take water from the river for their families. As time passed, the elders began to notice that the water would stay cloudy and smell bad throughout the hotter months. Besides the foul smell and murky water, sores also began to develop on the fish within the river, alarming the locals (Tainted Water, Bienkowski). These issues caused local colleges in the area to begin testing the water supplies throughout the reservation. Through the testing, researchers discovered two major sources of the pollution.

Researchers found traces of animal fecal matter within the water supplies scattered throughout the reservation. Further upstream from the Crow reservation, several confined animal feeding operations, are located near the river and the fecal runoff produced contaminated the Bighorn River (Final Report, EPA). The Yellowtail Dam, also upstream from the reservation caused contamination as well due to the increased watershed area (Assessment, USBR). The watershed area, while manageable, can cause pollutants or soil deposits to be swept downstream due to runoffs or flooding occurring. These contaminants from both sources created major health concerns for the people on the reservation.

The researchers from Montana State University and Little Bighorn College found substantial amounts of bacteria and metals in not only the river and springs, but also in 57 building and residential water supplies throughout the 2.3 million acre reservation. To put things into perspective, Chief Plenty Coups Spring is considered a sacred spring among the Crow and its sacred water is used in traditional sun dances and after fasting. This same water was shown to contain bacteria due to the fecal matter that was produced by the agricultural products upstream. As for the Crow water wells, many of the wells were drilled only until “first water” was stuck. This first water is the top layer of water in the ground and also the layer of water that is the most prone to pollution from agricultural waste and septic systems (Tainted Water, Bienkowski).

The EPA carried out a project from June 2009 to May 2014 looking more into the home water wells being used. Out of over 160 wells tested, not a single well cleared all of the EPA standards for drinking water. 55 percent of these home wells were considered by EPA to be unsafe to drink due to Uranium, Manganese, or Nitrate contamination. 75 percent of the wells also didn’t pass EPA’s secondary water standards due to the excessive amount of dissolved solids and the overall hardness of the water. After further testing was done on the home wells, the EPA concluded that 10 percent of the wells were contaminated enough to cause dangerous health risks for the residents drinking out of the well (Final Report, EPA).

Besides substantial polluting being done upriver, the EPA found that the reservation had another pressing issue. Researchers found that the municipal water treatment system on the reservation wasn’t up to EPA treatment system standards. The system wasn’t able to adequately remove harmful contaminants from the water sources provided. The water treatment system was so inefficient, the EPA put the treatment plant on its “Bin 4” list. This list is only reserved for treatment plants that are at the highest risk for dangerous contaminants and water pathogens (Final Report, EPA).

A further test done in June 2016 by the US Bureau of Reclamation also resulted in similar findings. Groundwater was one of the areas that the bureau focused on the most in this project. Results showed that the groundwater originating from the Bighorn River was rather hard and contained several inorganic materials. The bureau was able to find high levels of Manganese as well as Iron, Sulfate, and dissolved solids within this groundwater source and among others all throughout the reservation (Assessment, USBR). Beyond the inorganic, researchers also found other hazardous materials.

Bacteria, like E coli, was found within numerous water sources throughout the reservation. E. coli, as well as the nitrate mentioned before, were both commonly found due to the excess agricultural waste produced not only by farmers upstream, but also by farmers on the reservation (Final Report, EPA). Researchers also found Cryptosporidium in the water sources contaminated with agricultural waste. Cryptosporidium is the leading cause of waterborne diseases throughout the United States (Central for Disease Control, Crypto). These bacteria and metals, if left alone, are able to cause major, potentially life threatening, issues for the people living on the reservation.

The people on the Crow reservation are at risk of major health issues due to the contaminants in their drinking water. Uranium, for example, doesn’t have any smell or taste to it, yet it can cause major kidney damage if gradually consumed over time. As people drink water contaminated with Uranium, the material compiles in the kidneys as well as on a person’s bones. Diabetes is a major health concern among the Crow and Uranium further escalates that problem. Uranium also causes an increased risk for cancer, weakened bone growth, and even developmental or reproductive problems (Uranium’s Legacy, Bienkowski). Uranium isn’t the only problem that the Crow residents have in their water however.

If consumed, E. coli and Cryptosporidium also cause major health complications. Both pathogens have similar symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. E. Coli usually only lasts for a week, but can develop into an infection which can create further health complications like pale skin, bruising, and dehydration (E. Coli Infection, Pietrangelo). As for Cryptosporidium, symptoms last usually between one or two weeks. People with weakened immune systems are susceptible to longer lasting symptoms however. Some cases of Cryptosporidium have even proven to be fatal to these people with weakened immune systems (Center for Disease Control, Crypto).

Out of fear of getting sick or developing major health issues like cancer, the Crow people began to be scared of their own taps (Water System, Bienkowski). Residents have had to get use to boiling any water that they draw from their wells or from the river. This is similar to the issue within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which is also located in Montana. The Blackfeet Reservation spent eighteen years, from 1994 to 2012, under a boil water order (Bienkowski). Besides boiling their water, the EPA showed the residents how to shock treat their home wells using Chlorine. While it may not taste as good, the Chlorinated water substantially decreases chances of the people getting sick (Final Report, EPA).

The experiences that the Crow people have endured within their reservation have shed a new light on the inequalities still plaguing our nation. While many Americans complain about “first world” problems, many Native Americans, like the Crow, still don’t have basic human needs like clean water supplies. The research done by various teams has shown that even now, the Crow still don’t have water clean enough to pass all of the EPA standards for drinking water. Due to the animal waste and pollutant runoffs upstream, the water is contaminated with harmful substances like Uranium, E. coli, and Cryptosporidium. These contaminants can cause kidney issues, illnesses, or even death. Now while the reservation has a water treatment system, the people are still having to boil or shock treat their home water supplies with Chlorine due to the high levels of contamination still in the treated waters. The Crow, while resilient, still need and deserve the basic human necessity that is affordable, clean water.


Works Cited

Bienkowski, Brian. “In Crow Country, a Water System Brings New Life.” Environmental Health News. Environmental Health News,    23 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.      <        crow-country-a-water-system-brings-new-life>.

Bienkowski, Brian. “Tainted Water Imperils Health, Traditions for Montana Tribe.”  Environmental           Health News. Environmental   Health News, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.     <            health-water-justice-part1 >.

Bienkowski, Brian. “Years after Mining Stops, Uranium’s Legacy Lingers on Native Land.” Years             after Mining Stops, Uranium’s Legacy Lingers on Native Land — Environmental Health News.       Environmental Health News, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.             <  after-mining-stops-uraniums-legacy-lingers-on-native-land>.

Center for Disease Control. “Parasites – Cryptosporidium (also Known as “Crypto”).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 Aug. 2015.         Web. 27 Apr. 2017.             <>.

Pietrangelo, Ann. “E. Coli Infection.” Healthline. Healthline Media, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Apr.    2017. <>.

United States Bureau of Reclamation. “Municipal, Rural, and Industrial Water.” Reclamation:         Managing Water in the West. United States Bureau of Reclamation, June 2016. Web. 27 Apr.      2017. <>.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Final Report: Community Based Risk Assessment          of Exposure to Contaminants via Water Sources on the Crow Reservation in Montana.” EPA.            Environmental Protection Agency, 09 July 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.             <        ort/F>.

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.