There’s a complex argument over jurisdiction looming over the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s effort to get control of its drinking supply.

Vice Chief Ernie Neptune of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, right, at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday. There are likely many ways the water quality problem could be fixed, but only L.D. 906 recognizes the tribe’s inherent right to fix it themselves. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

But at heart, it’s simple. No matter the circumstances that have allowed things to get to this point, with the water at the tribe’s Pleasant Point reservation regularly unpalatable and undrinkable, the Passamaquoddy want the authority to correct the problem, and the responsibility for it going forward.

A lot of legislators agree. Legislation doing just that, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell, passed this week by overwhelming margins in the House of Representatives and Senate. Gov. Mills, who does not support L.D. 906 in its entirety, should put her concerns aside and sign the bill into law.

The problem starts in Boyden Lake, where the Passamaquoddy Water District draws drinking water, an average of 200,000 gallons a day, for 618 year-round residents in Pleasant Point as well as in the neighboring towns of Perry and Eastport.

Boyden Lake is shallow, making it difficult to maintain water quality. It has a high level of organic matter (plant material, bacteria and algae) that can change rapidly with wind and rain. For years now, residents have struggled to get drinkable drinking water, particularly in the spring and fall.

It has gotten worse in recent years, the program manager for the reservation’s water quality program told the Legislature earlier this year. Sometimes the water is discolored, other times it has a chlorine-like odor, and it can cause rashes and other skin problems, he said.


The tribe would like to drill new wells, but officials say they’ve been held back by laws requiring them to first get permission from the state and the water district.

“Generations of our people have lived and died without clean water because of state laws that prevent us from caring for our water, our land, and our communities,” Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell told legislators. “Today, we have the opportunity to join together to reject the policies that have held us all back and allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to be the stewards of the water for the people of Sipayik, Pleasant Point, as well as our neighbors. All of our communities can thrive when we have a voice in these decisions.”

The bill would transfer land in Perry to the reservation, and allow the tribe to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop new wells there. It would exempt the water district’s land from property taxes, something no other district in the state has to pay, saving the tribe $100,000 a year.

Opponents say that’s too drastic for a problem that could be solved through other means, and that taking the land away from Perry, without the town’s consent, sets a bad precedent.

The Mills administration, which supports making the district exempt from property taxes but opposes giving the tribe more control over the district, points out that the district’s filtration system will get a more than $1 million upgrade this summer.

It should go without saying that every community in Maine deserves clean drinking water.

But the questions being raised by this legislation are as much about the tribe’s right to self-determination as the water quality itself. There are likely many ways the water quality problem could be fixed, but only this one recognizes the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s inherent right to fix it themselves.

As Sen. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop Democrat, said in support of the measure, “We have a tribal nation and the EPA ready to step up and help this community in need today.

“The state of Maine must set aside her painful paternalism toward the tribes and get out of the way.”

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