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Decentralized Wastewater on Tribal Lands | Onsite Overview #4

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Tribal communities face unique challenges when it comes to the management of decentralized wastewater and it’s important that resources are developed with these specific challenges in mind. Simply having a septic system is not unique to those living in Indian Country, but many organizations have recognized that the basic resources available may not cover the questions that arise for tribes when it comes to the operation of these essential utilities. We have compiled a list of resources to get you started if you are interested in finding tribal specific information about septic systems.

Our best resources on this topic:
Water and Wastewater Utility Operation and Management for Tribes - Decentralized Wastewater Systems | U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This 29-minute presentation includes such topics as system inspection, system maintenance, and "things to avoid" for septic tanks. The module provides an overview of decentralized wastewater treatment and processes and includes a special look at innovative decentralized technologies and "best practices" for managing onsite systems.

Helping Solve Wastewater Challenges in Indian Country | University of Minnesota Water Resources Center
This 56-page guide provides tribal community members and tribal wastewater professionals with a four-phase process on how to assess and find appropriate solutions to community wastewater issues in Indian country. It includes guidance on generating a Community Wastewater Assessment Report, types of septic systems, how to choose the most appropriate wastewater treatment system for your community, and how to implement these solutions. The process outlined here weaves in significant considerations specific to Indian country that will likely improve the success of wastewater projects.

A Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems for Tribal Communities | U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This 9-page guide, from the U.S. EPA’s SepticSmart! program, focuses on the unique factors of tribal communities and homeowners on tribal lands in caring for their systems. It contains tips for properly maintaining septic systems as well as troubleshooting for common failure causes.

Onsite Wastewater Management: A Manual for Tribes | New Mexico State University
This 80-page manual helps tribes to take steps to ensure that sources of drinking water are clean and adequately protected against contamination, and that wastewater is appropriately managed. Chapter topics include: Historical Perspective of Native American Wastewater Management, Soils and Site Inspection, Septic Systems, Passive Advanced Treatment Systems, Mechanical Systems, Disinfection, and Reuse and Conservation of Wastewater.

Using a Responsible Management Entity (RME) to Manage Tribal Onsite (Septic) Wastewater Treatment Systems | U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This 4-page fact sheet/brochure describes the use of a centralized approach for the management of septic systems using a Responsible Management Entity (RME) for oversight and maintenance.

How to find more resources on this topic on our website?
If you are interested in looking through our database for other resources on this topic follow the instructions below:

  1. Select "CATEGORY" in the dropdown then choose "Decentralized WW Systems." 
  2. Once you make that selection, a second dropdown will appear where you can choose "TYPE" if you are looking for a specific kind of resource (videos, factsheets, etc.)
  3. In the Keyword Filter, type “tribal” to make sure the resources are more targeted towards this topic.
  4. The last step is to click the "Retrieve Documents" button to see your results.

Webinar: Decentralized Wastewater Resources for Tribes

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In this webinar recording you’ll learn how to access our clearinghouse of information specifically for wastewater and water operators on You will be shown how to access links to over 15,000 free, publicly available resources, a nationwide calendar, and much more. This webinar was focused specifically on resources that relate to decentralized wastewater for tribes.

The webinar will answer questions such as:

  • What is
  • What topics does the website cover?
  • What onsite wastewater resources are available?
  • How to find the Tribal Contact Manager?
  • What resources are available for tribal personnel about decentralized wastewater?

Below you’ll find a recording of the training, held in September 2023.


The Lytton Tribe Manages Government to Government Wastewater Agreements

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of our Tribal Utility Newsletter. You can subscribe to this newsletter or find past editions here.

In 1961 federal recognition of the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians was unlawfully terminated. While this recognition was restored in 1991, the Tribe was only granted federal recognition of a reservation in December of last year. During this time the Lytton Tribe built its success by establishing a San Pablo casino. Funds from the casino were used to purchase 500 acres of land near Windsor, California. Since then the Tribe has been working with Sonoma County to develop 147 housing units as well as a resort and winery.

Now that this ongoing development can be performed on land officially held in trust by the U.S. federal government, the Tribe is no longer subject to local land use restrictions. As such, the Lytton Tribe must assess all potential options to best meet future wastewater needs. Collaboration with their Windsor neighbors as well as an environmental assessment identified two primary options:

  • Onsite construction of a private wastewater treatment facility with management overseen by a private firm.
  • Joining the Windsor wastewater treatment plant to meet residential needs with construction of a smaller treatment plant for commercial wastewater.

Construction of a separate wastewater facility drew concerns for the town of Windsor. Effluent discharge would flow into gravel pits near the town's well field and a local watershed. Windsor residents were also concerned about potential treatment odors. If the Tribe connected to the existing treatment plant, they would benefit from the plant's existing efficiencies and reuse opportunities while leaving land available for future Tribal housing.

After accessing the capacity of the Windsor plant, the Tribe and town agreed to connect to the existing facility for a $20 million connection fee. Approximately $3.5 million of this will go toward aeration basin improvements to increase capacity for the Tribe's future development projects. Costs to connect services will be funded by the Tribe. Agreements such of these can often be tedious, however the town and the Lytton Tribe are working well to overcome disagreements, maintain transparency, and find a solution that mutually benefits both parties. The next steps in this project involve drafting a Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement over the wastewater services.

Through this work, the Lytton Tribe demonstrates how to traverse the formation of complex government to government agreements.To assist tribes with future water or wastewater system agreements and partnerships take advantage of the U.S. EPA's Water System Partnerships Handbook, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership's Resiliency Through Water and Wastewater System Partnerships, and the Water Research Foundation's Water Utility Partnerships Resource Guide and Toolbox.

Featured Video: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative

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These past few weeks, our featured videos have highlighted the infrastructure needs and challenges of water utilities from several different angles: kids' PSAs, rural utilities' infrastructure improvement projects, and operational know-how for utility administrators. But maybe your community is past all that. Your community  knows what your needs are. You've studied what other utilities in similar situations have done. Your utility's leaders all have a good grasp of what the problem is and how to fix it. What comes next?

There are a couple of different answers to that question, depending on your specific circumstances and the place where you live. You might need to contact a technical assistance provider or an engineer. You might need to apply for a grant. Depending on where you live, you may also benefit from joining a regional partnership. In Alaska, some rural communities have joined the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC), which helps streamline and standardize billing and assists with infrastructure improvements. This week's video features brief interviews with communities that have benefited from this partnership. (Please note that the first 8 seconds of this video are a black screen. The video will begin after this brief pause.)


For more on regional partnerships, see our featured video on a regional partnership in the Southwest.

Featured Video: Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority

There are a lot of rewards to living in a rural community: seeing just enough of your neighbors, lots of satisfying work, and (depending on where you live) getting to see the beauty of nature in the way a city dweller never can. Unfortunately for rural water utility operators, some of these benefits don't completely translate to their jobs. If you're the only operator---the only employee---at a rural utility, sometimes independence and hard work end up meaning the operation of the utility is all up to you all the time. Never being able to take a day off or have a vacation can be tiring enough. But you add in some of the weather Mother Nature can produce while she's busy being scenic, and sometimes you end up working nights, weekends, and 24-hour days, trying to keep your friends and neighbors supplied with clean, safe drinking water.

If this sounds familiar, a regional partnership might offer you a little breathing space. Regional partnerships can give you the opportunity to get a nearby operator to cover your utility while you take a vacation or go to town for a doctor's visit. Pooling your resources with other rural utilities can also help you qualify for employer insurance, access tools and resources from neighboring communities, and meet other knowledgeable operators. This 7-minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation shows how a regional partnership helped unincorporated communities known as colonias help each other:

Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority from RCAC on Vimeo.

To see more resources for water utilities from RCAC, check out their Guidebooks.

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.


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. 

Tribal Resources from and USEPA

At we recognize that small tribally-owned and operated public water systems often face unique challenges, beyond what impacts other small and rural communities. Because of this, we have created a number of ways to find information that is specific to tribes. This video provides an overview of our document and event databases, tribal newsletter, tribal assistance provider list, and the tribal contact manager.

For a sampling of documents we’ve collected in our document database, here are some of the USEPA documents we’ve found are particularly relevant for tribes.

For tribal drinking water systems:

For tribal wastewater systems:

And for tribes concerned about protecting their source water:

Check out the video for more on the resources we collect and offer, and if there’s a tribal resource you think we really need to know about, tell us in the comments!