Tribal Utility News Subscribers Give Us Insight into Tribal System Needs

When we launched our Tribal Utility News newsletter in 2012, we asked new subscribers about the challenges and education needs they felt were unique to tribal utilities. We got about 60 anonymous responses. Our subscribers include tribal operators, various technical assistance providers, and staff from several agencies that serve tribal interests. Judging from the responses we received, all three of these groups appear to be represented in our survey results.

My Problems Are Your Problems

While there are unique challenges facing tribal utilities, some of the common themes from the survey results address challenges faced by small utilities all over the country. Many small systems struggle to find and keep certified operators, raise the money to keep the system going, and keep the board engaged with the utility’s needs and responsibilities. While the specific ways in which those challenges crop up may be specific to tribes, a lot of resources intended for small rural systems could be helpful to tribal utilities as well.

Tribal Challenges

That said, tribal systems also face unique challenges related to sovereignty, government, federal support, and tribal issues and attitudes.

Remoteness and Isolation
Survey respondents mentioned that some tribal systems may not recognize that there are opportunities to cooperate or reach compromises with nearby non-tribal systems. In some cases, non-tribal water utilities might provide support that’s more conveniently located than tribe-specific assistance providers in the region. On the flip side, some tribes are in such secluded areas that they may be inaccessible to state and county support. And some tribes may wish to work with state entities but be facing other roadblocks.

Support From Tribal Government
As with many small rural utilities, tribal utilities sometimes struggle to get meaningful support from those in charge. Sometimes the tribal government doesn’t understand the need for qualified operators to run the system. Sometimes the tribal council doesn’t want to get involved in the utility at all, or ends up using utility job appointments for political patronage. Sometimes there just isn’t interest in water and wastewater issues.

One possible solution to these challenges was mentioned by a few survey respondents: utility boards. For most tribes, the water utility is under the direct control of the tribal council. Creating a separate water board allows the tribal council to focus on other governance issues while still ensuring that the utility receives guidance and oversight.

Dependence on Federal Entities
Some tribes don’t want to take ownership of their utilities, preferring to rely on federal support. Other tribes may want to be engaged, but find themselves dependent on slow-moving federal bureaucracy and assistance.

Tribal Issues and Attitudes
A number of factors related to the broader culture and conditions on the reservation could affect the performance of a tribal utility. Reservations with high unemployment might see their newly trained operators leave the utility for a better-paying job elsewhere. Sometimes there is resistance to working with non-tribal systems or working with outside entities to deal with problems or repairs. Some tribes may have restrictions in place that make it difficult for non-tribal operators to find someplace to live on the reservation. And finally, as with any small community, sometimes tribal politics affect the utility’s operation and management.

Tribal Education Needs and Resources Follow From These Challenges

As might be expected, most of the education needs highlighted by our survey respondents were in response to the challenges they mentioned. Basic management and operations topics topped the list. Luckily, while there are many challenges facing tribal utilities, there are resources available to meet those challenges.

Management Training a Must
The management support topics mentioned in our survey response covered the full range from record-keeping, ordinances, enforcement, and asset management to rate-setting, budgeting, and funding sources. This is probably related to respondents who felt that tribal councils didn’t always fully support the tribe’s utilities. However, there has also been increasing awareness that managerial support is a need for many small systems. Managing a utility in a small community can present special challenges. Finding funding can be more difficult, particularly for tribes. And things like enforcing ordinances or collecting past-due fees can be awkward when you know all of your customers personally. But when the utility managers feel able to tackle these challenges, the whole utility is able to provide better service to the community and a better work environment to its operators. 

For tribal councils and utility managers who want to learn more about the work that goes into managing a small utility, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has several useful guides for boards. You can also browse the guidebooks collected by RCAP regional affiliate RCAC. For utility management advice and certification from a tribal perspective, check out the Tribal Utility Governance Program Training Manual and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona's Tribal Utility Management Certification. Or check our calendar and document database for events and resources relevant to tribal managers.

Tribal Operators Make the Whole Thing Go
For operators, survey respondents focused on general O&M education topics like SCADA, safety, and general mechanical training. Water and wastewater treatment and distribution topics were mentioned, but much less frequently. Many small rural utilities have difficulty keeping trained operators on staff. The isolation and other challenges faced by tribal utilities often exacerbate this problem. This means many utilities have to periodically start from scratch, introducing apprentice operators to the basics of operation and maintenance. Luckily, there are a growing number of resources for tribal operators, in addition to the general operations training available in all states. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA) and the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) both have federally-recognized tribal operator certification programs. ITCA, the Navajo Nation EPA, and the Native American Water Masters Association (NAWMA) all offer free training for tribal operators, and USET hosts an annual operator summit. And of course, searching our calendar for the Tribal category tag or under State for the National Tribal Operator Program will bring up even more trainings for both tribal operators and tribal utility managers, covering topics from grant-writing and GIS to general O&M and drinking water treatment standards. 

On a related note, a few survey respondents mentioned a need for awareness about certification programs for operators. Because clean drinking water and the sanitary disposal of waste are so essential to public health, it benefits communities to have operators who have received the proper training to achieve these goals. It can be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day issues of running a utility, but ultimately, the role that utilities play in public health is their most essential service to the community. Operator certification programs are a way of ensuring that operators have received sufficient training to preserve public health. And well-trained, competent utility management helps ensure that those trained operators have the resources they need to do their jobs.

Help is Out There

Guidance manuals and standard operator trainings are all well enough, but sometimes a utility faces a situation so seemingly insurmountable that help is needed. Major problems with infrastructure and complex operations, budgeting, and management challenges often call for outside experts to help utilities find their way. Tribal utilities have these resources available to them as well. Our tribal contact manager is designed to help you determine which assistance providers are available in your area. In addition to federal resources like the Indian Health Service and USEPA regional offices, most RCAP regional partners and state based technical assistance providers may be able to assist you. (Some RCAP partners have staff specifically for tribes as well.) Regional tribal associations with utility management and operations resources like those mentioned above generally offer technical assistance as well. To see our full list of Tribal Assistance Providers, go here. For an overview of our tribal resources at WaterOperator.Org, see this video. Even if you don’t need a hands-on technical assistance provider right now, it might be a good idea to figure out who your best contacts are, so you can be prepared for life’s little surprises.

You're Not Alone

Tribal utilities face many unique challenges, but that doesn’t mean that leading or working for a tribal utility is impossible. There are education, technical assistance, and financial resources available to tribal utilities that need help, and practical solutions to even the most unique problems. We’ll be sharing some of those resources here on the blog, and the technical assistance providers we mentioned above will probably know about even more. To keep up with the latest tribal news and resources we’ve collected, subscribe to our newsletter, and let us know if there are more resources, challenges, or tips we need to know about as we work to serve tribal utilities in the future. 

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