Entries for the 'Tribal Systems' Category


The Tribal Utility Governance (TUG) training series is designed to help the managers of tribal water systems better understand how all the pieces of utility management fit together. Like other water systems, tribes often face competing pressures from the public they serve and the government that ultimately makes many decisions. 

Effective and sustainable utility management requires that a holistic and long-term view serves as the broader context for short-term decision making. A federal government task force committed to working on tribal infrastructure issues states this goal

"Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation shall be provided through entities that are sustainable and implemented through integrated agency planning that link sthe development goals of the tribe with the need for such services and infrastructure."

Such a large charge to water and wastewater systems means that heads must come together within the tribe to discuss the financial, managerial and technical issues. It is often the utility manager or another senior operator, who must serve as a leader to balance needs and facilitate understanding of all parties. 

To assist with this important communication and education challenge, the task force prepared a short document that outlines commonalities and best practices of sustainable tribal utilities. I'm sure few would disagree that it is often the following recommendation is one of the most challenging:

"Day-to-day management and funding for the utility should be isolated from politics, either through an independent utility board (e.g., NTUA, TOUA) which provides oversight and high-level direction, or a separate entity (e.g., ARUC)."

However, this reference can serve as the perfect launchpoint for discussions that initiate baby steps in the right direction.  


The Housing Assistance Council works to improve housing conditions in impoverished rural areas. Basic access to safe drinking water and sanitation is of course an important aspect of their mission. 

In their 2010 report, Taking Stock: Social, Economic, and Housing Conditions in Rural America, this graphic illustrates the geographic distribution of homes without complete plumbing. 

On one hand, we can see that the tribal, border and Alaska Native communities have the most challenges. This is consistant with a 2010 report by the Indian Health Service that indicated that 12% of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities did not have basic access.

On the other, it clearly illustrates that there are safe water and sanitation access challenges that exist across the United States. While the 2005 Census said that only 0.6% of non-native homes lack access, this amounts to more than 1.5 million Americans living without the basics.

Most of you reading this post probably know this.

A Public Perception Problem
We participated in #STEMchat recently, a Twitter chat of parents and educators interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics. The theme of the month was water, with an emphasis on how we perceive and value the resource. 

When the topic of basic access was raised, conversation quickly turned to developing nations. While no one would argue that significant public health challenges exist outside of the United States, why does the public dialogue most often exclude the problems here at home?

The chat participants seemed surprised and confused when we mentioned the statistics above. Until the public stops seeing water infrastructure access as a "not here" problem, concern and funding for tribal and rural programs will remain inadequate. 

Need help educating the public? The RCAP report, Still Living without the Basics in the 21st Century, is a good place to start. 


During 2011 and 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a series of face-to-face training events for tribal water and wastewater operators. The training sessions emphasized practical, applicable knowledge about operations and maintenance (O&M) as well as asset management.

The materials have been archived into series of interactive, self-paced training modules. Topics for the new training modules include:

  • Sewer System Overview 
  • Lift Station Overview 
  • Overview of Lagoon System Management 
  • Decentralized Wastewater Systems 
  • Providing and Protecting Potable Water 
  • Drinking Water Distribution System Management 
  • Storage Tank Management 
  • Asset Management 
  • Techniques for Developing a Rate Structure 
  • Water and Wastewater Operation and Maintenance (O&M) Case Studies

While the content was developed with tribal operators in mind, it is highly applicable to most small or rural systems. The format allows an operator, manager or board member to consume the material on his own time and only the topics that are applicable. 


When you sign up for our Tribal Utility News newsletter, you're asked what challenges tribal water and wastewater systems face, specifically what challenges that are different from other small systems. We've been listening closely to the responses. Here is a summary:
Who Responded
We have had about 60 responses to our survey. Though we don't know who said what, the folks who signed up for the newsletter include tribal operators, various technical assistance providers, and staff from several federal agencies that serve tribal interests. Based on the responses, it seems that everyone in those groups provided at least a little input.
There Are A Lot Of Similarities
First of all, tribal systems are facing many of the same challenges that non-tribal small systems are facing all over the country.  The responses mirror many of the things we hear all the time from small systems.  We'll provide some of that information in a different post, however.
There Are Definately Additional Challenges/Issues For Tribal Systems
Tribal systems face unique challenges related to their sovereignty, government, federal support, and tribal issues/attitude. Remember, we are here to be impartial, share what others have said, and hopefully move forward the dialogue on how to support tribal water and wastewater operators and the systems they serve. Below is the list we have so far. We welcome comments, suggestions, and most importantly, positive ideas for solving the challenges tribal water and wastewater systems face:
Remoteness and Isolation
- Cooperation and compromise with nearby non-tribal systems
- Seclusion from non-tribal resources (state and county)
- Ability to work with state entities (want to be able to)
Support From Tribal Government
- understanding the need for qualified operators
- tribal council involvement can be low
- lack of interest in water and wastewater issues
- need for a water board to make fair decisions (need independence)
- using system for political patronage
Dependence On Federal Entities
- need to take ownership of systems (attitude)
- dependence on slow moving federal bureaucracy/assistance
Tribal Issues/Attitudes
- high unemployment, new operators leave for better job
- cooperation and compromise with non-tribal systems
- non-tribal operators may not be able to stay on reservation
- tribal politics
- reluctance to work with outside entities to deal with problems, repairs
What's The Point?
There was one comment, only mentioned once, that makes the point that everyone involved with water and wastewater needs to remember. They said: "lack of emphasis on compliance for health and safety of citizens." When we all look at why we are involved with this profession and specifically involved in supporting tribal water and wastewater folks, isn't providing safe drinking water and clean discharge to the environment the only thing that really matters? Would some of these issues go away if we just made that the focus everyday, instead of some of the issues mentioned above?
Please Comment
We welcome comments, so please either post a comment on this blog post of send an email to info@smallwatersupply.org.


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