Tribal Utilities Role in Safe Drinking Water on Tribal Lands

Provide Safe Drinking Water

Staff who manage, operate and maintain public water systems in Indian country have a key role in providing safe drinking water to the community. Utility staff is responsible for ensuring compliance of their systems with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Ensuring compliance includes:

  • Appropriately treating source water;
  • Repairing or replacing infrastructure components;
  • Collecting, analyzing and reporting drinking water compliance data to EPA; and
  • Communicating with customers.

For more information on roles and responsibilities:

Build Capacity for Tribal Utilities

Developing a tribal public water system’s (PWSs) capacity improves the performance of the trained staff and the system 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 referred to as TMF, for:

These areas are explained in depth below.

Technical Capacity

The “T” in TMF refers to the technical capacity of a system. This 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 comply with all federal health based drinking water regulations. As a result, there are less premature system repairs and the public receives with 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.

Top of Page

Managerial Capacity

The “M” in TMF refers to building managerial capacity of the utility, which 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.

Top of Page

Financial Capacity

The “F” in TMF refers to financial capacity. It includes revenue sufficiency, credit worthiness, and 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 the ability 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.

Top of Page

Top of Page

Tribal Utility SDWA Compliance

Compliance with Drinking Water Regulations

National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. These standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.

EPA regulations also:

  • Set testing and recording requirements
  • List acceptable techniques for treating contaminated water

It is your responsibility as a tribal utility organization to comply with the NPDWRs. In the absence of tribal primacy, EPA has primary enforcement responsibility under the SDWA in Indian country.

Federal drinking water regulations apply to all public drinking water systems throughout the country regardless of ownership or primacy agency. Therefore, the same principles and guidelines apply to all public water systems, including those in Indian country.

Under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, public water system owners and operators are responsible for:

  • Monitoring their systems;
  • Reporting compliance; and
  • Providing public notice.


Public water systems are required to monitor their water regularly for contaminants. EPA can provide technical assistance to show utility operators how to properly sample and monitor a public water system.

EPA cannot perform actual on-site sampling or any activity related to compliance monitoring. Operators must carry out these activities.


The water system must report to the primacy agency the results of water samples to demonstrate that the water meets health based standards.

Public Notification

Water systems must provide public notification to persons served by the water system. Three tiers:

  • Tier 1 public notice—required for NPDWR violations and situations with significant potential to have serious adverse effects on human health as a result of short-term exposure.

  • Tier 2 public notice—required for all other NPDWR violations and situations with potential to have serious adverse effects on human health.

  • Tier 3 public notice—required for all other NPDWR violations and situations not included in Tier 1 and Tier 2.

For more information on monitoring water systems and reporting compliance data, please refer to EPA’s Monitoring, Assessment and Reporting Guidelines.

Infrastructure Assistance for Tribal Utilities

Tribal utilities manage and operate public water systems in Indian country. Along with tribal governments, they are responsible for providing safe drinking water to tribal communities. To achieve this, water systems need to comply with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA provides technical assistance to tribal water systems through the following programs:

Tribal Resources

Tribal Resource Directory – Search for federal and non-federal funding & assistance for drinking water & wastewater systems.

Tribal Contacts – Search for national and regional program managers and other tribal organizations.