By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Klamath, Calif. – Nearly a half century ago, Ron Sundberg’s father paddled across the Klamath River in a rowboat with his brothers to get to school on the Yurok Indian Reservation.

“My grandmother had a restaurant out there, and there were boat tours, they would walk up to our cabin,” recalls Sundberg, whose family are Tribal members. “The restaurant was called the Paddle Inn. Our cabin burned down last year but otherwise, things haven’t changed too much.”

Sundberg’s father attended Jack Norton Elementary School which today—not unlike six decades ago—enrolls between 30 and 35 students every year. Built in 1959, it consists of two classrooms, a library, cafeteria/gym, a small office and a playing field. Yet, it still has no electricity or telephone service. It operates instead on a diesel-fired generator and uses a radiophone. Internet reception via satellite is spotty.

This is a place still full of tradition, where Yurok Indian fishermen with hand-carved eeling hooks brave the frigid and turbulent river to catch the snakelike fish, a diet staple for centuries. It is where Tribal members remain dedicated to preserving Yurok, a Native American language that almost became extinct in the early 1900s. Linguists say no other Native American language in California is taught in as many public schools as is Yurok.

“Although small,” the Jack Norton Elementary School’s website reads, “we are a school rich in staff and strong with community and Tribal support.”

School’s water fails SWTR

Such sentiment was recently put to the test when school officials learned that the surface water the school had been using for drinking and cooking failed the federal Surface Water Treatment Rule’s for filtration of surface waters.

When the school’s water system was constructed, there was no such rule. According to Sundberg, who is an environmental rural development specialist with Rural Community Assistance Corporation, the system was designed to act as a slow sand filter but it had flaws.

“The filter had design flaws which prevented the water from flowing through the fine grains of sand. Rather than reconstruct the filter, they switched to a coarser sand. The new sand allowed the water to pass through, but it failed to properly filter the water.”

But this still didn’t bring the school’s water system into U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance.

Although the school is on the Yurok Indian Reservation, the Klamath Trinity Joint Unified School District (KTJUSD) administrates it, but was financially unable to monitor and repair the system. EPA Region 9 then stepped in and ordered a sanitary survey, a formal onsite review of the water system.

“I worked with the school district to correct most of the deficiencies listed in the survey,” Sundberg says, “and provided compliance training to maintenance staff.”

Tribe’s nearby water system offers solution

But the school district simply did not have the resources to monitor the ongoing maintenance and treatment. Since the school is on the Reservation, Sundberg decided to ask the Yurok if they could assist.

“We approached the Tribe about [the school] connecting to the Tribe’s nearby system,” he says.

The Tribe supported the idea but was unwilling to pay for the necessary construction that would connect the school to its Wautec system about a quarter mile west in the town of Pecwan. Meanwhile, the school district leadership changed from year to year, and each superintendent had a different idea of how to solve the problem. RCAC had worked with the school in 2006 and Sundberg started working with them in 2008.

For the Yurok, which with more than 5,000 members is the largest federally recognized Tribe in California, helping the school meant allowing EPA to regulate its water system. Up to that point, the Tribe’s water system was not regulated, but once it allowed the school to connect to it, the EPA would designate it a public water system. This was a big step and particularly significant because, as it turned out, the Tribe’s water system was also not in compliance.

“The lack of electricity and remoteness of these systems make compliance a real challenge,” Sundberg says.

To help streamline the connection project, RCAC staff conducted a feasibility study and developed a conceptual design. Some problems, however, seemed unsolvable, such as the fact that the school is at about the same elevation as the Tribe’s water storage tanks.

“Water systems need pressure in the pipes” Sundberg explains. “You get pressure from either elevation or a pump. Pressure provides protection from contaminants that might enter the piping system from the environment. Contaminants can enter non-pressurized pipes. Also regulation requires a certain amount of pressure in the distribution system at all times. If a system goes below that certain amount, the operators need to respond with public notification and biological testing.”

To solve this, the school district secured funding to construct a pressure booster station and make improvements to its storage tanks. This project was completed during the summer of 2016, and as a result students at the Jack Norton School now have access to safe drinking water.

Perseverance overcomes challenges

According to Missie Ammon, KTJUSD’s director of maintenance and transportation, the greatest challenge during the project was keeping the old system working until the connection was completed. She says that RCAC’s dedication to the project was indispensable.

“Ron [Sundberg] was such a big help to us,” she says. “Without him, it would have been a nightmare. I was constantly asking him, ‘Now, what test are we talking about now?’

Tests showing that the school’s water was out of compliance, she adds, had become commonplace. “Now, there are no scares anymore. There’s a proper testing process in place. The water is monitored through the Tribal system; there’s no more boiling and the kids can actually drink out of a drinking fountain.”

The Tribe, too, was fortunate to find funding through EPA Region 9 to construct piping to the booster station. RCAC also helped with construction inspection, working closely with EPA compliance officers and contractors before, during and after the work.

Austin Nova, chief operator for the Yurok Tribe, says that Sundberg is correct in thinking that connecting the Tribe’s water system to the school was a big commitment.

“There’s increased demand and pressure on our small system,” he says. “But it was very important to the Tribe to give the school clean water.”

To find out more about the Yurok culture, visit The Yurok Tribe website.

(Rev. 5-24-17)