Entries for the 'Tribal Systems' Category


Today at AWWA's Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE) our program manager Steve Wilson is delivering a talk about our experience as a communication partner for the Tribal Utility Governance (TUG) program. It's part of a session titled "Managing Small Water Systems: Diverse Perspectives from the Field."

If you were not able to attend or just missed Steve's talk, here are the slides:

Posted in: Tribal Systems

This is a guest post from Angela Hengel, a Rural Development Specialist with RCAC. 

RCAC Regional Environmental Manager Dave Harvey explains an electrical panel.


Small community water systems face a variety of problems and challenges quite unlike anything their larger counterparts must face. With fewer customers to share the costs of running the system, smaller water systems suffer from economy of scale. These utilities often struggle to maintain water quality, water quantity, and system infrastructure. 

Decreased revenue also means that small water systems are often faced with the inability to provide equitable pay to their operators resulting in frequent turnover and a subsequent loss of system knowledge and experience. Adding to that problem, small systems often cannot afford the time and resources required to create adequate standard operating procedures for their system. This issue can have a devastating effect on a utility as new operators have few useful guidance documents to assist them with learning operations, maintenance and repairs. As regulations become more stringent and the associated technologies more complex, the need for well developed, user friendly operating procedures becomes even more apparent. 

The Search for a Solution

RCAC technical assistance providers work with small community systems on a daily basis and are familiar with the challenges they face. Through these relationships, it became clear that the lack of informative and easy to use operations and maintenance (O&M) manuals was a recurring roadblock for small systems striving to become sustainable. RCAC was faced with a question, how to develop an O&M manual that captures system information in a method that is easy to use and understand?

To start, RCAC looked at basic O&M manuals for small treatment plants and drew some conclusions; while they contained system information, they were often bulky, difficult to navigate, and very generic. This was particularly true when it came to manufacturers’ O&M manuals. 

Another aspect that RCAC noted was the tendency for manufacturers’ O&M manuals to be written with either too much engineering language or without any engineering thought at all. As noted by RCAC Rural Development Specialist and professional engineer Leon Schegg, “What we came across were catalog cuts from particular equipment manufacturers but very little information specific to that system,” said Schegg. “Some of the materials handed over were actually sales brochures.” As a result, these manuals were more often than not left by operators to collect dust on a bookshelf.

RCAC realized that a new approach was necessary. There had to be a way to enhance O&M manuals in a manner that is both technically sound and user friendly. For RCAC Regional Environmental Manager Dave Harvey the answer was easy. “I am a do-it-yourselfer kind of person,” said Harvey. “I love to tinker on my bike and my vehicles at home and my go-to place is always YouTube. I would much rather watch a video of how to repair my bike than read a manual. It’s fast, easy and accurate.” And with that, the RCAC video O&M manual was born. 

Making the Manuals

The idea of a video O&M manual was immediately welcomed by small water system managers and operators. With funding from Indian Health Service (IHS), RCAC began development of video O&M manuals for three tribally-owned small treatment plants. 

“Our intent was not to do away with the written manuals but rather to enhance them by integrating them with video demonstrations filmed on site at the treatment plant,” Harvey said. The result; highly individualized O&M manuals that provide not only written information, but detailed yet easy to follow video instructions on plant operations and maintenance. 

RCAC took a holistic approach to creating the manuals. Each individualized O&M manual is created through a collaborative of RCAC technicians, utility operators, IHS engineers, contractors and manufacturer technical representatives. Filmed onsite by RCAC videographers and finished in the RCAC graphic arts department, each manual is a one-of-a-kind visual training tool. With it, small system staff with limited technical skills can learn their system’s requirements and follow step-by-step maintenance procedures using a menu-driven CD containing text, photography, video and the internet. 

There were challenges to be met along the way in the creation of the manuals. “It was kind of like a movie set. We had to get all parties on site and organized and ready to go when it was time to film,” said RCAC’s Eagle Jones. “We had to deal with road noise, lighting, people forgetting their lines and just getting used to the idea of being on camera,” Jones said. “It took a few shoots and we had to go back and re-shoot a few sections, but in the end we produced some really great video.”

Bringing the video and written manual together in a cohesive and organized manner presented its own set of difficulties. “It was important that the manuals were designed in a way that would build the operators’ trust so that they actually use them,” said Schegg. “We inserted flags in the text of the manuals directing the user to a video.” 

One of the issues RCAC had to overcome was that the manuals being provided by equipment manufacturers often contained information that was different than plant operations. According to Schegg, “The videos were documenting actual maintenance procedures that were not in the manufacturers’ manuals.” This was particularly true with plant start-ups. “Problems arise during plant start-up that may not be known during the design phase or when the manufacturer put together their operations and maintenance manual,” said Schegg. “We see and resolve inconsistencies between the plans, manufacturers’ literature and recommended settings so that our manuals present the actual process and equipment operating and maintenance procedures necessary at your site.”

The Outcome

Once the video O&M manuals were completed, RCAC returned to the systems to review the manual with the operators. “We don’t just say, ‘Here’s your manual’” says Harvey. “We sit down and review every section with system operators to ensure that the information in the manual and video is completely accurate and, more importantly, that the operators understand how to use it.”

The Campo EPA department recently received a completed video O&M manual. Melissa Estes, Campo EPA Director, commented on the decision to have RCAC create the manual, “IHS recommended RCAC. The bid we received from RCAC was very reasonable compared to other consultants.  RCAC met with the Tribe’s Executive Committee and the Committee decided RCAC were experienced working with tribal governments and would do a good job, so the Committee approved the contract.   Since the Tribe and the tribal EPA had worked closely with RCAC on other projects we felt they would do an outstanding job.” 

In reference to the actual manual, Estes referred to it as being, “very user friendly,” and went on to note, “This manual will accommodate people who learn from reading, and others who learn from seeing.  The format is helpful for people who like to read directions or see them on a video. It is very helpful to have a manual specific to the system you operate, with actual demonstrations of how to operate the components.” 

RCAC knew that a video O&M manual would provide several benefits to small systems such as; increased operator technical capacity, a more effective preventive maintenance program, a more effective emergency maintenance program, a more accurate ability to budget for parts and labor, and having an enhanced training tool for new operators that acts as a safety net should the system find themselves one day without an operator. 

Still there were other, unexpected benefits that came about during the creation of these manuals. By bringing together engineers, operators, contractors, and technical representatives and analyzing the processes, each party began to get a better understanding of their role as it interrelates to other roles. As Schegg states, “The manual brings together documented and undocumented procedures from the standpoint of an operator which proved to be a tool not only for the operator but also engineers and contractors who use the information to modify those processes in the future and hopefully have an advantage when starting a new design.”

The Future

With the success of the three video O&M manuals, RCAC has plans for not only creating more treatment plant manuals, but to expand to other utility operations. “We are currently in the process of finishing a wastewater treatment plant manual and putting together proposals for creating distribution system manuals using the same video format,” Harvey said.

As for whether or not other systems would be interested in video O&M manuals, “Almost 100% of the managers and operators I have talked with would prefer to have an O&M manual with video integrated into the text,” states Harvey. And when asked if she would recommend this style of O&M manual to other systems, Estes replied, “Yes, we would recommend this style to other water systems.” 


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. 

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