Lee and Santos working on the water tank.

By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

On a sunny fall day, Santos Obedoza approaches a fire hydrant on the Upper Lake Rancheria here in northern California. With wrench in hand, he gingerly begins turning the hydrant’s lock and valve to open and flush them. In minutes, the water gushes across the road.

It’s a hard job, clearly, but someone has to do it.

Lee Schegg and Santos Obedoza at fire hydrandt.
Upper Lake Rancheria’s water and wastewater operator, Santos Obedoza and Lee Schegg, RCAC Tribal circuit rider flush a hydrant on the Rancheria.

Alongside Obedoza stands Lee Schegg, RCAC rural development specialist and Tribal circuit rider. Since greeting one another earlier at the Pomo Tribe’s office, and while preparing to unlock the hydrant, the two talk shop in between joking and getting caught up on what has happened at Upper Lake Rancheria since they last saw one another.

There is talk of cross connection control, protecting meters on houses and valves from bad weather. Schegg and Obedoza discuss wrenching open stubborn valves. They chat about how to balance the time necessary for tasks such as hydrant flushing with customer complaints about perceived water waste, especially in light of California’s recent drought.

It’s all in a day’s work for Schegg, who joined RCAC in 2010 and has spent the last eight years working with Tribes in Northern and Central California. He offers hands-on technical assistance and training to water and wastewater operators, like Obedoza, and utility administrators. With more than 30 years of experience in the water and wastewater field, Schegg is skilled in small utility system engineering, operations, financing and management. But, perhaps most importantly, he is the operators and managers trusted colleague and on this recent visit, that confidence in his – and RCAC’s – help is plain to see.

“RCAC has helped me get through exam courses, preparatory classes for those and with technical assistance,” says John Cruz, operations supervisor for Big Valley Rancheria Water District, which serves 38 homes and a casino. “I’ve even called on weekends and gotten help. This is really, really important as an operator, to maintain clean, safe, drinking water.”

RCAC’s Tribal Circuit Rider program serves tribal communities throughout California and Arizona. The mission, since the program’s inception 25 years ago, is to provide ongoing, dedicated assistance to Tribes so that they can deliver safe water to their customers and properly dispose of wastewater.

Circuit riders provide the training and the hands-on practical experience to develop sustainable operations. Like Schegg, they work directly with Tribal staff and managers on the full spectrum of financial, managerial, and technical (TMF) skills needed to sustain operations effectively while achieving and maintaining regulatory compliance. Tribal communities receive routine, in-depth, recurring training visits, and response to calls for assistance when problems arise. These can occur, of course on evenings, weekends and public holidays.

“The real idea, as unusual as it may sound,” Schegg says, “is to work ourselves out of a job.” The reality, he says, that with job turnover or administrative changes, or even personality conflicts, transferring skills may be a never ending need.

“RCAC tries to provide continuity,” Schegg says. With turnover comes a loss of institutional knowledge. “RCAC provides both the training and a bridge to understanding their systems for new operators.”

“Sometimes it’s a matter of helping with basic math and calculating chemical reactions,” he says. “We try to relate the theory to the job they’re actually doing.”

Tribes, he adds, frequently do not have the financial resources to fully fund their water systems, so if they can perform operation and maintenance activities with their existing workforce, they’re better off.

This holds for tasks such as good record-keeping, writing reports and keeping reporting up-to-date. It also means helping Tribes develop and work with spreadsheets and to use them to look for trends.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of helping with basic math and calculating chemical reactions,” he says. “We try to relate the theory to the job they’re actually doing.”

Lee and Santos at the Tribe's water tank.
Schegg and Obedoza at the Rancheria’s water tank.

Before working on the hydrant, Obedoza spoke with Schegg about matters like where best to store paint thinner. It was a good question, Schegg told him, because thinner is a flammable substance. They talked about the best place to buy fire department approved storage containers, and how to locate and maintain them. Schegg advised on the importance of emergency eyewash equipment, and how it needs to be readily accessible. Together they looked over damaged hydrants, discussed useable parts, finding replacement parts and color codes for different hydrant performance levels and various water storage capacities to support fire protection while maintaining distribution system disinfectant levels. At one point, they examined corroded bolts together, and Schegg suggested replacing several of them.

With such varied tasks to the job, Schegg says, a circuit rider’s day is never dull. Those days start out often in the office, gathering materials for a visit and readying for travel.

“We spend a lot of time on the road because the Tribes are so widely distributed across the region,” he says. “To do this job, it certainly helps to enjoy driving and have a lot of music with you that you like to listen to.”

The roads linking the Rancherias to one another are mostly free of traffic and they weave across desolate farmland and gentle rolling hills dotted with oak trees. This is all of great benefit, as Schegg puts it, “You have a lot of time for contemplation. It gives you time to think about what the Tribe needs and what skills and tools you can provide.”

Those needs vary and yet are also fairly common among Tribes. They include setting up and calculating system treatments and modifying, maintaining and replacing equipment. One of the most important needs Schegg and other circuit riders address is training and assisting Tribal members to gather water samples. It sounds simple, he says, but the procedures are in fact complicated, including adhering to timing and temperature rules.

At Big Valley Rancheria, like the Upper Lake Rancheria, the operation and maintenance staff members are active and have good technical training, which makes it a pleasure, Schegg says, to visit and work with them. Schegg has also helped with training new staff, like Steven Johnson, who was the newest water plant technician at Big Valley.

Lee Schegg, Steven Johnson and John Cruz at Big Valley Rancheria.
Big Valley Rancheria’s lead operator John Cruz (right), operator in training Steven Johnson (center) and Schegg (left) inspect an underground sewer lift station during a site visit to review the utility operations.

“I like my job partly because I like being outdoors but also because I know I’m doing something good for my people,” says Steven one morning after Schegg presented he and his colleagues with advantages and disadvantages of various water testing options. “But I’m not good at math. Randy (Vessels) and Ron (Sundberg) [RCAC circuit riders] trained me a lot for the certification test, which I really appreciate.”

Cruz, too, is doubtful he would have his job at Big Valley if not for RCAC’s help. “When I first started, I had no training at all,” he says. “RCAC helped me with the exams. I’ve had my job for 10 years now.”

Administrators also appreciate RCAC’s work. Back at Upper Lake, Anthony Arroyo Sr., administrator for the Upper Lake Band of Pomo Indians, says, “We’re especially grateful for RCAC’s help in preparing for reviews,” he says. “We have that confidence because we know you’re just a phone call or email away.”

Moreover, as Cruz puts it, “RCAC is helping us help people on a daily basis, even when the people we serve don’t know it.”

(Headline photo caption: Lee and Santos brainstorm methods of installing new vent screening on Upper Lake Rancheria’s water storage tank.)

All photos were taken by Elizabeth Zach.

Want to know more about what a Tribal circuit rider does? Check out this RCAC video: Tribal circuit riders: A day in Lake County, California