Danaeh Neptune-Miliano fills up water jugs at a well in Robbinston in April 2020 as part of the Wabanaki Public Health's efforts to bring clean water to the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. Credit: Wabanaki Public Health

AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to reshape state-tribal relations took a historic step forward on Tuesday after a supermajority of the Maine House of Representatives advanced a bill giving one the ability to control their own water supply.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, or Pleasant Point, has struggled to improve its drinking water for years. Efforts to find another water supply have been blocked by local regulations and the tribe is required to go through the state instead of the federal government under to a 1980s land-claims settlement at the center of tribal rights discussions in Maine.

The bill from tribal Rep. Rena Newell would amend that agreement by adding two parcels of land in the town of Perry to their territory through a federal trust process. It would also make the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the regulator for Passamaquoddy drinking water standards. The changes would bypass both the state and Perry, which passed a 2014 ordinance blocking the tribe from getting a well permit on land it now pays taxes on.

The 103-35 vote on Tuesday was a major step for tribal sovereignty negotiations. Advocates have been on a three-year-long quest to reshape Maine’s laws governing its relationship with the tribes. Gov. Janet Mills had sworn to improve relations when she came into office, but she has opposed many provisions favored by tribes and has been skeptical of this bill. The bill awaits further action in the Senate, but the governor’s reservations remain the ultimate hurdle.

“This is a small, incremental change, that we would be able to have jurisdiction over our water on our lands,” said Passamaquoddy Chief Maggie Dana. “That’s all we want, we don’t want to do anything more.”

The self-governance question was central to the arguments from supporters. They argued municipalities would not have been so hampered in trying to fix their water supplies. The water provided to the tribe is deemed safe under state and federal standards, but it has seen elevated levels of chemicals linked to cancer several times in recent years. It is discolored and tastes bad.

“We will continue to speak of our concerns,” Newell said. “We will continue to seek to work with others to remediate the drinking water quality that does not promote a healthy way of living for the tribal citizens of Sipayik.”

The Democratic governor’s administration has expressed caution against the measure, saying having two regulators over the water system would be impractical and urging lawmakers to wait for state and federal efforts to try and fix the water to finish before considering legislation.

While the water has tested as safe in recent years, it still tastes bad and is discolored. Newell, the Legislature’s last nonvoting tribal representative, said the risk of water making a member sick was unacceptable.

Opponents largely echoed the governor’s concerns, saying it was not clear if allowing the Passamaquoddy Tribe to govern their water would fix the technical problems associated with their water supply. They also argued it would take away local control from the town of Perry, which has said allowing the tribe to tap a well could negatively affect residents.

“Is this really an issue of water source or infrastructure?” said Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan. “This bill is seeking a solution without knowing the cause of the water quality issues.”