When Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe water resource professionals discovered that 60 percent of the Minnesota reservation’s septic systems were sub-standard or failing, they feared for the reservation’s health, indigenous rice fields, and fish populations.
Shirley Nordrum, a Leech Lake Extension educator with the University of Minnesota, responded with an extensive education program. She explains to homeowners how having the sanitation department pump their septic systems could protect their health and contribute to the safety of the environment and their community. She uses funds from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Federal Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) to conduct this outreach effort. Her program has become a model for other communities.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers FRTEP, which provides funding for Extension programs on federally-recognized reservations. Currently, FRTEP supports 36 programs in 19 states.
“Leech Lake Reservation has extensive water resources, including 13,000 acres of natural wild rice beds and 270 fishable lakes, all of which are threatened by untreated wastewater from an estimated 1,200 failing septic systems,” Nordrum said. “When we began, an estimated 19 million gallons of untreated wastewater was being released into the environment each year. Our goal was to improve the treatment of 8 million gallons of wastewater annually and we reached that goal in 2011.”
Federal regulations do not address septic system maintenance in the community, which means individual tribal governments are responsible for septic system maintenance and homeowner education. Nordrum visits 60 to 80 households annually to provide technical assistance and education on proper septic system operation and maintenance. About 50 percent of those systems are in need of repair.
Nordrum works with reservation communities to help them develop a process for small community wastewater management. She also partners with tribal leaders and tribal wastewater professionals to help them improve strategies and procedures for handling failing septic systems. She holds environmental science camps for youth to give them background in water ecology, provides educational tools in both Ojibwe and English and plans statewide tribal wastewater round table sessions.