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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

Featured Videos: Clarifier Basics & State Point Analysis

Featured Videos: Clarifier Basics & State Point Analysis
You know what a wastewater clarifier does in a general sense---solids go in the bottom, cleaner water comes out the top---but how do you handle the nitty gritty of day-to-day clarifier operation? How do you understand what's happening? How do you troubleshoot?

This week's video offers some answers. It begins with a very brief refresher on the basics and then goes on to dive in to state point analysis and troubleshooting scenarios. It's just under 15 minutes and includes clear diagrams and visuals to help guide you through the concepts.  And if you click through to YouTube, there's a link to the spreadsheet used in the second half.




For more on clarifier operations and troubleshooting, visit our document database, type "clarifiers" (without the quote marks) into the keyword search field, and search document type Slides/Presentations.

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

In recent months, there have been dozens of reports of wastewater treatment plants that have flooded due to heavy hurricane rains and storm surges in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and beyond. Both the sheer number of plants affected, and the extent and duration of the flooding have posed significant public health and technical challenges, often stretching communities to their limits

To add to these problems, many rural utilities were already struggling to keep their systems operating before the storms struck, so costly, complicated repairs or replacements of damaged infrastructure is simply not an option. For example, Patton Village, Texas had just completed a new wastewater plant  the first of its kind in their community — before Hurricane Harvey struck. Now they can only hope that USDA/FEMA emergency funding will be available to help repair the damage. And even once the systems are up and running again, it is not a given that water systems can count on water rate income to help with their O&M bills - many residents have fled their flood-damaged homes for good.  

The sad truth is that lately, floods have been affecting wastewater plants with unfortunate regularity, and not just in hurricane-prone areas. For example, in Central Illinois, the small town of Hutsonville's wastewater treatment plant has flooded 3 times in the last 2 years, up from once every 5 years, according to its contract operator Shannon Woodward of Connor & Connor, Inc.

Woodward's first piece of advice is not to build on a floodplain, but he also acknowledges that many communities do not have the capital funds for effective protective measures or relocation, and so operators must deal with the hand they are given. His second piece of advice: "Make sure all electrical controls, switch gears and transformers are above the flood stage. That way, when the flood waters subside, you don't have equipment loss and can get back into operation — even if it takes 3 to 6 weeks for the waters to recede." 

Mason City, another small town in Illinois, was able to fund improvements after a flood in 2008 cut off the town’s water supply and nearly overflowed the capacity of its wastewater system. The following year, the city built a stone wall around the water plant, installed flood sensors on the local river, and built effluent pumping stations for the wastewater plant. 

And this article tells the damage and recovery stories of two flooded wastewater plants in Rhode Island. According to the operators of these plants, it is essential to have a flood plan, even if you think your facility is protected. In addition, they maintain it is important to involve wastewater treatment personnel in emergency response exercises or in the incident command structure. On a practical level, the operators encourage SCADA systems to be elevated on the second floor in the operations building if possible. And lastly, they recommend you back up your files and documents electronically. Papers get wet, they say: move them to a dry storage facility. 

Finally, while every community has different characteristics and needs, there are some universal preparedness strategies for wastewater plants. The US EPA recommends practicing mitigation options as the best way to prevent floodwater from invasively appearing. Some of these options include crafting barriers around key assets, having an emergency back-up generator, and keeping key electrical equipment elevated. You can learn more about these options here, or you can watch this helpful video. In addition, many states have their own guidances, such as this one from Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency.

Featured Video: Radionuclide Removal

Featured Video: Radionuclide Removal
Radionuclides are radioactive particles. They can be manmade or natural, existing in water, earth, and even living creatures. When they're consumed in drinking water, they can cause cancer or kidney problems. The USEPA has established drinking water standards to make sure radionuclides stay below dangerous levels in drinking water. If you're in an area with high levels of naturally occurring radionuclides, you are probably already aware of the issue and working to address it. But seeing how other small utilities are dealing with the same issue can still be useful.

In this week's video, the chief operator of the drinking water plant for Medicine Bow, Wyoming discusses the radionuclide treatment for his community, using a combination of ion exchange and blending. You might need to crank up the sound to catch everything, but it's still a great look at one small community's approach to this drinking water standard.



For more on the Radionuclides Rule, see the USEPA's Rule and Compliance pages, and this small system compliance guide in particular. You'll also find materials in our document database under the category Radionuclides.

Featured Video: A Day Without Water

Featured Video: A Day Without Water
A day without water is a daunting concept. Not only would it mean challenges to drinking, bathing, cooking, cooling, manufacturing, and dozens of other day-to-day activities, but as a water professional, it would probably be your job to get the water flowing again! Next week, the third annual Imagine a Day Without Water public education effort will highlight the value of water. Participation in this campaign can help your customers understand the importance and cost of the important work you do.

For utilities, Imagine A Day Without Water can also be an opportunity to consider your ability to keep the water flowing or restore your operations in the face of disaster. This USEPA video from a few years back highlights the Community-Based Water Resiliency tool (or CBWR). This tool can help you work with stakeholders in your community to assess your preparedness for various emergencies, and provides suggestions for improvement. If you and your community haven't gone through an exercise like this, the CBWR could be a great place to start.



For more on community-based water resilience, see the USEPA's website.

Featured Video: Supplying Community Water

Featured Video: Supplying Community Water
Managing a rural utility can sometimes feel overwhelming and lonely. When you're the only ones in your community dealing with challenging infrastructure, bill collecting, and complicated accounting, it can feel like you're the only people on earth to face these issues. Add in the little quirks of a small rural community, and it can feel like no one could possibly understand what you're dealing with or what you're trying to accomplish.

The truth, though, is that the challenges facing rural communities are nothing new. This week's video is obviously several decades old at this point, but the issues facing the featured communities will probably sound familiar. From aging infrastructure to inadequate rate structures, these utility boards found ways to tackle issues that are still relevant today. Note that the Community Resource Group mentioned in the video recently changed their name to Communities Unlimited


 

Communities Unlimited is a regional partner of the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAP). To find the RCAP regional partner offering technical assistance in your area, check the regional map. You can also browse RCAP's handbooks for small utilities and utility boards by going to our document database and searching for the host Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the document type Manuals/Handbooks.

The issues facing your utility may be tough, but they're not unique. There are technical assistance providers and other utilities that have faced them before and found a way to make it work. We and our partners at RCAP want to provide you with the resources to do that too. And if your utility has come up with a particularly good solution to a problem, let us know!


Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Much has been said about shining a light on the value of clean water and the hidden infrastructure and personnel involved. In the past decade or so dozens of documentary films about water have been produced that do exactly that. From films that expose the aged and decaying pipes under our feet to films that reveal more complex and difficult truths about who is responsible for this decay, documentary filmmakers can bring big water issues, and the controversies and emotions that come with them, into the spotlight. 

Take for example the recent documentary Troubled Water, a film that highlights water contamination and public health issues in America. Watching the film, and seeing, sometimes for the first time, that many communities do not have access to safe drinking water can hit hard on the public's emotions. They might wonder about the lack of access to safe drinking water or about why there are so many toxins and, especially, they might wonder what people plan to do, and when, to fix the problems. 

Or this film about plastic microfibers showing up in tap water. Samples taken from Asia to Europe to the Americas, the video maintains, demonstrate that 80% of the world's tap water contain these fibers. Scientists interviewed in the film, while agreeing that more research is necessary, believe that chemicals bound to these fibers could be toxic to humans. With plastic surrounding us everywhere we look, the public can feel like there is no escape! 

With their dramatic soundtracks and interviews, these documentaries can certainly get people mobilized to push for meaningful change. Yet they can also erode trust and authentic communication between the community, local governments and their water utilities, especially if the concerns are based on incomplete knowledge.

The trick perhaps is to first acknowledge that any kind of public water awareness, no matter how it comes about, is essentially a good thing. Indeed, according to this EPA fact sheet on communicating with customers about contamination, every contact with the public provides an opportunity to build up public trust, develop closer ties, explain your utility's commitment to delivering safe water, prepare the public for future communication and gain support for investment in their water system.

At the same time it is important to know that whether or not these films play a significant role in public perception, results from recent polls show that Americans are increasingly becoming more concerned about water quality issues. Many utility personnel field water quality concerns from their customers on a daily basis already, so being prepared with good information and a positive attitude can go a long way in staying calm through a public relations storm, or just as inquiries increase over time. The AWWA has a helpful toolkit for talking honestly and openly with your community about difficult issues such as lead contamination.  

In the meantime, you can get ahead of the game by anticipating questions that your customers might have about their water, where it comes from, and who is in charge. Here is a list of recent water documentaries (with links for watching if available) that may be weighing on your customers minds lately. 

  • Water & Power: A California Heist This films explores competing interests in California's groundwater reserves and the privatization of water.
  • Troubled Water This film investigates drinking water contamination in communities across the country.
  • Liquid Assets This film tells the story of our water infrastructure
  • Tapped This film examines the role of the bottled water industry and its effects on our health, climate change, pollution, and our reliance on oil.
  • The Water Front This film explores issues of affordability and changing neighborhoods, as well as the strengths and limitations of community activism.
  • Flow This film asks the question: Can anyone really own water? 
  • Nova: Poisoned Water  This NOVA series uncovers the science behind corrosion control and lead in pipes.
  • Parched This National Georgraphic water series treats a variety of topics including affordability, lead in pipes, PFAs/C-8 contamination, rooftop water tanks and more.
  • Beyond the Mirage This film focuses on drought, growth and the future of water in the West.
  • Written on Water This film shows innovators in Olton, Texas who fight to keep their town alive against the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

Finally, it is hard to not get overwhelmed by the sense of despair that such documentaries can sometimes produce. However, this documentary produced in 2011 by the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water takes a more positive spin on how states and towns can tackle water quality challenges a little bit at a time to add up to significant improvements for all. 

Featured Video: Running Toilets Waste Water

Featured Video: Running Toilets Waste Water
As football season gets underway, it's a good time to revisit Denver Water's clever water conservation PSA. The video may be ten years old, but the simple concept still makes for a fun and memorable message. It's a good reminder that even though water utilities play a vital role in public health and quality of life, that doesn't mean we can't sometimes have a little fun. Happy Friday!



Effective Lead Sampling

Effective Lead Sampling

While the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has helped reduce lead in drinking water over the past 25 years, complying with sampling requirements can certainly be challenging! Even when a water system faithfully follows protocols, results can be inconsistent and/or unreliable. While the conditions in which samples are taken, or procedures used, are often out of the hands of water operators, the results of these tests can have significant consequences for their water systems, not to mention the communities involved. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan. 

Last year, in response to these concerns, the EPA released this memo to clarify tap sampling procedures. In addition, in a move towards a rule revision due out soon, the EPA has also recently issued a LCR Revisions White Paper that offers suggestions on how to improve the rule as well as considerations for improving tap sampling. 

In this white paper, the NDWAC Lead and Copper Rule Working Group corroborates what operators have been saying all along:  the LCR sample site selection and sampling process "provides opportunity for error, particularly given that samples are collected by residents themselves."  In addition, the group says the current system provides "opportunities for systems to implement sampling procedures to avoid exceeding the action level..." 

How to fix the problem? The group suggests substituting a voluntary customer-initiated sampling program for the current LCR tap sampling requirements and/or partnering with technology developers to identify and develop real-time monitoring technologies (such as this inexpensive lead monitor), among other things.

All this is well and good, but until this technology becomes available, and/or a more prescriptive sampling guidance or revised rule released, what is a water operator to do? Is there any sampling method that offers the most reliable results in the most efficient way?

This is the topic of a recent AWWA/WRF study entitled “Evaluation of Lead Sampling Strategies”. The study found that the answer to this question does not come easily. In fact, according to the study, "no sampling method was particularly proficient at finding the peak lead level compared to doing a full profile for each sampling event”. In addition, the type of lead found in samples was inconsistent: “even at a specific site, on some occasions the sampling can be particulate dominated and on other dates the lead can be dissolved dominated or some combination,” the report states.

It is no wonder that water operators across the country may welcome further guidance on this rule. In the meantime, Michigan's DEQ offers a couple of helpful resources: these sampling instructions can help water systems assure residents are following proper procedure and this sample site selection criteria factsheet can help systems ensure a large and diverse enough sampling pool. Please note that the use of guidance material from EPA, other states, and third-parties can offer insight and clarification, but should not be considered a substitute for policies and guidance from your primacy agency. 

To get an update on lead issues in the water industry, join this webinar that will be presented by the VA-AWWA in November. 

Finally, be sure to check out this AWWA video featured on our blog earlier this year: Lead and Copper Sampling.

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates
If you're a utility manager or a member of a water utility board, there's a good chance you've had to deal with utility rates at some point. If not, there's an even better chance that a rate-setting conversation is in your future. As the nation's infrastructure ages, many communities are coming to terms with the fact that their utility rates have been too low to allow for replacement costs. Whether you've been forced into an expensive repair by a catastrophic failure or simply know a major piece of your infrastructure is living on borrowed time, you may have no choice but to consider a rate hike and other fundraising measures. But even if your position is not that dire, utility rates have to respond to many complex factors including inflation, fluctuations in number of customers, and changing water treatment standards.

If the whole thing sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has produced several resources to guide utilities through this process. Their handbook Formulate Great Rates provides guidance for small communities that need to conduct water system rate studies. They also recorded a 2-part companion webinar for the handbook, the first video of which is linked below. The webinars are presented by RCAP experts with experience in rate-setting and help explain some of the more challenging sections of the handbook. This first webinar is about half an hour long.


Formulate Great Rates: A webcast on setting rates in small-community utilities (Part 1) from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you need more help understanding the handbook, or need a hand with rate-setting in general, RCAP's regional partners offer technical assistance for rural communities. You might also want to check out the Environmental Finance Center's rate dashboards.

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