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Tribal Utilities Role in Safe Drinking Water on Tribal Lands

Building Capacity for Tribal Utilities

Developing a tribal public water system’s (PWSs) capacity improves the performance of the trained staff and the systems they operate.

Effective operation and maintenance of tribal PWSs is key to remaining in regulatory compliance. It also avoids failures that lead to costly infrastructure repairs and replacement. As a result, capacity development can lower operational costs to the tribe and produce higher quality water.

The three general areas of utility capacity development are technical, managerial, and financial (TMF) capacity.

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Technical Capacity

The technical capacity of a system typically includes 3 elements:

  • System infrastructure and the condition of its components
  • Source water and treatment
  • Appropriate training and certification for utility staff

Technical development for staff ensures that the utility operates and maintains the system efficiently and complies with all federal health based drinking water regulations. As a result, there are fewer premature system repairs and the public receives safe and sustainable drinking water.

Operator Certification

Certified operators have a responsibility for effectively operating and maintaining PWSs to provide safe drinking water to the public.

EPA established the Tribal Drinking Water Operator Certification Program for personnel operating public drinking water systems in Indian country.

To receive EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Grant (DWIG) funds a Tribal PWSS is required to have certified operators. Operators can obtain certification through this program or through another recognized program.

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Managerial Capacity

The managerial capacity of the utility typically includes:

  • ownership accountability 
  • staffing and organization
  • external communications and
  • asset management

It is important that the utility identifies organizational roles.
Examples of these roles include:

  • The system owner who is accountable for the overall performance
  • A utility director and/or utility board who is responsible for oversight and overall utility operation
  • The manager who operates and maintains the system

Clear organizational roles and responsibilities avoid redundancy, streamline response to issues, and support compliance.

Communication is an important part of managerial capacity. Maintaining dialogue within the organization, with other systems, and with regulators stimulates cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships. Periodic and emergency public notifications are a regulatory requirement; they also protect and improve the relationship with the community.

Managing assets effectively helps to meet the public water system’s needs. Asset management provides the utility owners and operators:

  • A powerful tool to plan for system maintenance, repairs and upgrades;
  • An inventory of system components, owners, managers and utility staff to schedule preventative maintenance; and
  • A budget to, replace or overhaul, the components before costly failures occur.

These preemptive actions will help avoid failures, enable the utility to keep a more consistent workload, and budget for large capital improvements over several years.

For more information on managerial capacity, please refer to the Assessing Water System Managerial Capacity guide.

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Financial Capacity

The financial capacity of a system includes:

  • revenue sufficiency
  • credit worthiness 
  • fiscal management and controls

A financially capable organization with revenue sufficiency can identify the costs of operating a water system. Also being able to establish an operating budget and rate structure allows the system to meet customer needs and comply with regulations. This may include user fees and shut off policies.

Good credit rating provides access to capital for large projects through various financial tools. These include grants, loans and bonds.

Good fiscal management practices include record keeping, reporting and planning. These practices ensure that the organization stays aware of its financial situation and can take actions to continue operating in a sustainable manner.

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