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Major Wastewater Project Started on Tule River Reservation

The largest funded stimulus wastewater infrastructure project involving an American Indian tribe has begun as a joint undertaking of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

The major project on the Tule River Indian Reservation at the southern end of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains is being funded by the EPA for $6.3 million through the Clean Water Indian Set-Aside Grant Program. Indian Health Service is providing an additional $1.8 million.

“The stimulus funding really gave a boost to the amount of money that exists for tribal water and wastewater infrastructures,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We wish there were more projects like this and the funding to go along with them,” he said, speaking of the EPA’s involvement at Tule River.

“About 30 percent of the homes had failing septic tanks and drain fields. There are both environmental and health risks associated with having wastewater permeating into rivers and streams without being treated. All kinds of waterborne diseases are related to that. Then there are another 30 percent of the homes whose systems are on the brink of failure. So nearly 60 percent of the homes that were hooked up to some kind of septic or leach drain fields had either failed or were about to fail. It’s the equivalent of not having any kind of proper wastewater treatment for those families,” he said. “We all know what happens when you don’t have good wastewater treatment or clean drinking water: you get all kinds of bacterial and other infections. “As a country we think we have moved beyond that, but unfortunately in places like Tule River without adequate funding we’re not going to close this health gap.”

The Clean Water Act, which is coming up on its 40th anniversary next year, has a goal of setting minimum standards for communities across the country, Blumenfeld added, “…so wastewater didn’t pollute our streams and rivers and lakes and that the water that came out of the tap made us healthy, rather than jeopardized our health.”

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The Tule River Reservation project has been in the planning stages for more than a year, he added.

Joey Martinez, Public Works Director for the Tule River Reservation described one of the currently failing systems with which his department is having to deal.

“We’ve had to pump it several times, the leach field and septic tank, to stop the effluent from entering the home. One of the reasons that system is failing is the poor soil conditions. That’s pretty typical with the systems that are failing throughout the community.” His department’s stopgap remedies are attempting to help many system failures like this one. But, permanent relief is in sight.

“They’re starting on the new collection system itself. That would be the pipelines that are going in the road. As they’re doing the installation on the road they will be setting manholes and service connections,” Martinez said.
The EPA joined IHS and members of the Tule River Tribe at a groundbreaking ceremony on the Tule River Reservation for the wastewater infrastructure project. In a traditional blessing and ceremonial turning of the first shovel of dirt, officials of the Tule River Indian Tribe were joined by local federal, state, city and county officials to begin the project.

The new system will serve 268 homes, provide 6.9 miles of collection system pipeline and establish 371 residential connections, in addition to the creation of a wastewater treatment facility.

The 55,000 acre Tule River Reservation at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is surrounded by the agriculture belt of California’s San Joaquin Valley. It was established in 1873 by executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant.