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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Cassia Smith
Cassia Smith
Cassia Smith's Blog

Featured Video: Rural Missouri Climate Adaptation

Though it may still feel like spring, depending on where you are in the country, summer is just around the corner. And with summer comes the possibility of drought. Is your utility at risk of drought conditions? Do you know what you'd do if a drought visited your community? Occasional but severe weather events can feel hard to plan for, but not planning at all can make the situation worse. In this 2-minute video, a small rural community in Missouri talks about the planning efforts they're taking on to be prepared for drought in the future, after a particularly tough 2012. Interestingly, their plans to combat drought mesh well with their concerns about sediment in their source water supply as well.

If you'd like to learn more about climate adaptation planning for your utility, check out the tools available through the EPA's Climate Resilient Water Utilities portal, and in particular their risk assessment tool.

Featured Video: Is Your Drinking Water Protected?

For the last two weeks, our featured videos have talked about the benefits of stormwater management. While stormwater management and green infrastructure are great ways of protecting your source water, a lot more goes into source water protection. Source water protection plans, wellhead protection plans, and watershed protection areas can all play a vital role in ensuring your source water enters your treatment plant in the best condition possible. This week's video takes three minutes to summarize the financial, environmental, and water quality benefits of formal source water protection planning. It does mention the state of Pennsylvania specifically, but much of the information is useful to anyone considering these questions.

If you're interested in learning more about how source water protection planning works, you might be interested in the materials offered by the Washington Department of Health's Source Water Protection program and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Wellhead Protection program. 

Featured Video: Green Infrastructure for Small Rural Communities

Last week, we shared videos for educating your consumers in ways to improve stormwater quality and increase infiltration. But maybe you're interested in these topics as well. In that case, this week's video is for you. This hour-long webinar recording highlights green infrastructure efforts taken on by two small, rural communities. Representatives from the utilities in those communities discuss reasons why they wanted to take on stormwater management, reasons why they chose green infrastructure, the projects and programs they implemented, lessons learned, and project funding. It includes before and after and process images, but is not a highly detailed build guide.

> For public outreach stormwater videos, see last week's blog. For more practical insights into the construction of stormwater management structures, search our document database using the category Stormwater and type Manuals/Handbooks. If you want to narrow it down further, try selecting by your state or a state near you, or type "BMP" (without the quote marks) in the Keyword search filter.

Featured Video: Freddy the Fish

If April showers have arrived at your utility, then stormwater topics are probably at the forefront of your mind---and your customers' minds too. This makes it a great moment for public education. There are things utilities can do to mitigate stormwater quality, but nothing works quite as well as having your community pitch in to clean up the watershed. This week's video presents basic practices that improve stormwater quality, in terms aimed at your youngest consumers. Freddy the Fish focuses on reducing litter, picking up dog poop, and eliminating storm sewer dumping, and combines these messages with animated and live-action video and brief singalongs. The video would be a particularly good fit for presentations to young school-age children, which in turn can be a great way to engage your community.

For more stormwater public outreach materials, search our document database using the category Stormwater and the type Factsheets/Case Studies. You might also be interested in the EPA's video on stormwater (for adults) here.

Featured Video: Arsenic Treatment in a Rural Town

Over time, low levels of exposure to arsenic can result in cancer. This is a sobering fact for anyone, but it's particularly challenging for small rural towns with arsenic in their drinking water. When neither the utility nor the residents have access to other water options, treatment is of the utmost importance. But because arsenic doesn't cause taste or odor issues, or produce immediate health effects, getting that treatment in place can sometimes be difficult. Learning how other small utilities did it can help. In this week's video, the manager of a small rural utility in Montana introduces his utility and describes how they chose to put arsenic treatment in place for their system.

For more on arsenic in drinking water topics, see this USEPA factsheet (PDF), or search our document database using the category Arsenic.

Featured Video: Valve Maintenance

Spring is traditionally the time to knock out the cobwebs and dust off the high shelves. For those of us living in areas with cold winters, it's often the first time going outside has felt pleasant for months. For those in warmer climates, it's often time to batten down the hatches for the serious summer heat. But no matter where you live, spring cleaning season is officially here. And your utility doesn't need to be any different! Spring can be a great time to start your valve exercise program, whether you're making your post-winter maintenance assessment or getting things in shape for the summer. And this week's video, from our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), is a great resources as you get started. The 4-and-a-half minute video provides a brief walkthrough of the valve exercising process, along with dos and don'ts and maintenance tips.

For more videos from RCAP, check out their channel on Vimeo. For more on valve topics, search our document database using the keywords "valve exercising" or "valve maintenance" (both without the quote marks) in the Keyword Filter.

Featured Video: Operator Math

In a lot of ways, the ability to do math is like the ability to use a muscle. You always have muscles, of course, but whether you're able to use a particular muscle or muscle group depends on how developed it is. In other words, it depends on how often you use those muscles, whether you're lifting weights regularly or just hauling around a heavy toolbox on a daily basis. Math is the same way. Sure, on any good day you can probably handle 2 + 2. But for more complicated problems, regular practice and a thorough understanding of the principles can help those equations go from a headache to a breeze. Since water and wastewater operators often find themselves calculating things like chemical doses, the volume of complicated objects, and rate of flow, keeping in good mathematic shape can go a long way to making your life easier. And of course, being in practice doesn't do any harm when it's time to sit for your exams either!

There are a lot of ways to brush up on your math skills, and sometimes it helps to try a couple until you find what works best for you. Our document database has collected math help in a wide variety of formats under the Certification/Exam Prep category. Use "math" (without the quote marks) in the keyword filter box to narrow it down to just math help. But if you're someone who needs to see someone else work the problem in order to get what's going on, this week's videos might be a particularly good fit.

Indigo Water Group, a water and wastewater operator trainer in Colorado, has created a playlist of videos in which their owner works common water and wastewater math problems. Most of these videos are short and broken down by kind of problem. The exception is an hour long video devoted to wastewater math. At the time of this writing, the other videos in the playlist covered unit conversions, geometry, dosing, reducing MLSS concentrations, velocity and HRT, and digester problems. But more topics have been slowly added over time, so there may be more in the future. The video below links the entire playlist, which starts with three short unit conversion videos.

The YouTube channel CAwastewater takes a slightly different approach. Instead of breaking the videos down by topic, the channel owner (who is an operator himself) breaks down the videos by the state exam level where the problems are most likely to appear. He has playlists for the California exam levels 1, 2, and 3, and one playlist that combines the math for 4 and 5. Though these videos are aimed at California wastewater operators, both water and wastewater operators from across the country will likely get something out of them. The individual videos are about 5-10 minutes long, and the playlists are about a half hour to an hour. Choose the playlist that looks most interesting to you.

Hopefully, these operator math videos will help you round out your mathematical fitness routine, leaving you well prepared for operations challenges and certification exams alike. And if there's a great free math resource that we didn't mention here that you want to be sure we know about, let us know in the comments!

Many Organizations Offer Resources for Tribal Utilities

In previous articles, we’ve talked about tribal resources available through USEPA and our own site, and resources that can be used to combat common difficulties faced by tribal utilities. Below you'll find a round-up of funding opportunities for tribal projects on infrastructure, local environment, or other utility-related projects. We've also included a list of agencies and organizations that can assist such projects.

Grants and the agencies that offer them

Of course, federal agencies don’t just offer technical assistance. Many offer grants and low-interest loans as well. If you know exactly what’s needed for your system but have no idea how you’d pay for it, these programs may be something you want to look into.

USDA Rural Development Grants

The Water and Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program – “Provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas.” Federally recognized tribes with lands in rural areas are eligible for these grants. Tribes on state reservations may be eligible as well. (See page 50 of this report for details.)

Individual Water & Wastewater Grants – These grants “provide government funds to households residing in an area recognized as a colonia before October 1, 1989.  Grant funds may be used to connect service lines to a residence, pay utility hook-up fees, install plumbing and related fixtures, i.e. bathroom sink, bathtub or shower, commode, kitchen sink, water heater, outside spigot, or bathroom, if lacking… This program is only eligible in states with Colonias, and those are Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.”

Water & Waste Disposal Technical Assistance & Training Grants - These grants can help a local, regional, or national non-profit organization provide training and technical assistance to tribal communities.


AmeriCorps Indian Tribes Grants – Though the window for this fiscal year’s grants has closed, you can see typical funding priorities on the 2016 grant page.


Indian Community Development Block Grant Program – This program “provides eligible grantees with direct grants for use in developing viable Indian and Alaska Native Communities, including decent housing, a suitable living environment, and economic opportunities, primarily for low and moderate income persons.” Community facilities and infrastructure construction, including water and sewer facilities, are covered by the grant.

Border Community Capital Initiative – Though this program is currently hosted on HUD’S website, it’s actually a collaborative effort between HUD, USDA Rural Development, and the Department of the Treasury – Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund). “The Initiative's goal is to increase access to capital for affordable housing, business lending and community facilities in the chronically underserved and undercapitalized U.S./Mexico border region. Specifically, it will provide direct investment and technical assistance to community development lending and investing institutions that focus on affordable housing, small business and community facilities to benefit the residents of colonias.”


Indian Environmental General Assistance Program – Grants intended for “planning, developing and establishing environmental protection programs in Indian country, and for developing and implementing solid and hazardous waste programs on tribal lands.” 

Drinking Water State Revolving Funds – A portion of the Drinking Water Revolving Funds distributed to the states are available for tribal grants and loans. You will have to contact the program run by your state for details on how to apply. See the “View contacts by state” function at the bottom of this page. Or Google your state and the words “state revolving fund” to find the webpage for your local program.

And So Much More – The USEPA’s tribal page has collected several tribe-eligible grant programs into one convenient location. Click on the Water tab to view grant programs for beach monitoring, drinking water, underground injection control programs, wastewater, water pollution, water quality standards, water security, watershed programs, and wetlands. Depending on where you are and the problems your tribe wants to address, the Toxic, Environmental Multimedia, Enforcement & Compliance Assurance, and Place-Based Programs tabs may be of interest as well.


Professional assistance for tribal projects

While there are a lot of valuable federal resources available to tribes, you may have local or regional non-governmental organizations available to you as well. Many of them focus on broader water-related topics like environmental management or GIS training, though there are a few specifically aimed at utilities as well. To find non-governmental technical assistance providers specific to water utilities, you can visit our tribal technical assistance provider page and scroll down to the regional and tribal organizations. 

Tribal Utility Governance Program (TUG) – This tribe-specific utility program provided training and technical assistance on utility management and financial and managerial capacity issues for personnel of tribally-owned and operated public water systems. Though the training sessions have now been completed and the program has ended, you can find the program manual and recordings of the three training modules here.

Amigos Bravos – This New Mexico non-profit is a statewide water conservation organization that is inspired by and works closely with the state’s tribes and native Hispanic populations. They also work with other local communities and urban environments. They are best known as a river and water protection organization.

Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals – ITEP, based at Northern Arizona University, offers events, training, and resources on a wide variety of tribal environmental topics, including air quality (indoor and outdoor), waste & response, climate change, and energy, with occasional resources dedicated specifically to water topics. In addition to their training, they’ve collected an online database of resources on tribal or environmental issues, as well as a resource center and several tribal partnership groups.

Tribal Pollution Prevention Network – Modeled on the USEPA Pollution Prevention program, this tribe-focused network is focused on reducing the environmental and health risks associated with the generation of waste in tribal lands. Membership in the national network is open to environmental professionals from tribal entities, local state and federal agencies, and not-for-profit organizations.

Salish Kootenai College Hydrology Program – Native Americans interested in the field of hydrology may want to check out SKC’s program, which offers both Associate of Science and Bachelor’s degrees. Hydrology is the study of the earth’s water and its movement in relation to land. It’s not a field directly related to water utilities, but having a hydrologist around who understands the water in your region can be a huge asset to a utility facing certain source water problems.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium – Though Salish Kootenai College is the only American Indian college currently offering a degree specific to water issues, many of the consortium’s colleges offer environmental science degrees and certificates. Most of those programs emphasize a mix of western science and traditional environmental management approaches. – This organization is facilitated by the non-profit National Tribal Geographic Information Support Center (NTGISC) with support from Wind Environmental Services, a 100% Native American owned and operated GIS firm. It offers a variety of GIS support services specifically for tribes, as well as an annual conference focused on tribal GIS topics. (Tribes wanting to get started with GIS might also want to check out the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ GIS training events.)

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Sneaking in one federal agency after all. The USACE Tribal Nations Program has two main goals: to consult with tribes that may be affected by USACE projects or policies, and to reach out and partner with tribes on water resources projects. Tribes that want to know more about how to plan a water resources project with USACE will want to check out this guide and their Planning Community Toolbox. These resources will be of particular interest to tribes interested in large-scale environmental restoration projects.

Didn't find what you need? We can help.

Though tribal utilities face their own unique challenges, there are opportunities for tribes as well. This article only scrapes the surface of resources available to tribes who want to work on their infrastructure, local environment, or other utility-related projects. For more tribal resources, see our previous blog entries. And if there’s a tribal organization or program out there that you think we should know about, email us, or let us know in the comments. If you’d like a hand finding resources, drop us a line.


Featured Video: Coliform Sampling Best Practices

Have you ever had a coliform sample come back positive, gone through the trouble and expense of re-sampling, and discovered your first result was a false positive? If so, you know what a frustrating, time consuming, and expensive process it can be. One way to avoid having this happen to you is to be very rigorous in your sampling technique when you collect the sample. This video from our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) walks you through the 13 steps of total coliform sampling, and discusses how to find a good sampling site.

For more RCAP videos, visit their channel on Vimeo. For more on the Total Coliform and Revised Total Coliform Rules, see the EPA's website.

Featured Video: Community Onsite Options

If you live in a community with a large number of failing septic tanks, you're probably already familiar with the downsides of these systems: the damage to local water quality, the threats to public health. The smell. What you may not know is what you can do about it. Of course, one option is to convert the entire community to a conventional wastewater collection and treatment system. This prevents putting the entire community at the mercy of that one guy who just won't pump or repair his tank, and it ensures that a professional is involved in the wastewater treatment process.

But what if a conventional sewer system is logistically or financially impractical for your community? Are you stuck dealing with smelly, dirty water leaks forever? Thankfully, the answer is no. This 17-minute video discusses the opportunities offered by community onsite management systems. These systems combine the effluent from individual septic tanks into a community-wide leachfield, and often involve mandating activities such as basic maintenance and monitoring. The video includes profiles of five communities (most of them rural) that successfully rehabilitated failing septic systems and combined them into a community onsite management system.

If you're interested in learning more about septic systems and decentralized wastewater systems (which involve community-level septic options), browse our document database using the category Decentralized WW Systems. You can also visit NESC's wastewater page for more on the septic resources they collect and offer.