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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.


Brenda Koenig
Brenda Koenig
Brenda Koenig's Blog

Featured Videos: Onsite Wastewater Systems

According to the US Census Bureau, one in four homes in the U.S. is served by an onsite wastewater system. Our first featured video this week explores some of these onsite options and then explains in simple terms how each of these systems work in different soil conditions and what it takes to maintain them. In the end, the video shows how the cost-effectiveness of septic systems can often more than outweigh the cost of a centralized system for many smaller communities. 


Wondering how to find the funding to get these types of decentralized systems off the ground? Our second video this week explores how innovative partnerships and Clean Water State Revolving Funds can be used for exactly these kinds of projects.


Do you want to find out more about onsite wastewater options and how to pay for them? Head over to our 
resource library and pick "decentralized ww systems" as a category! 

WaterOperator.org Staff Interviews Small Systems in Illinois

WaterOperator.org Staff Interviews Small Systems in Illinois
This past year, WaterOperator.org program director Steve Wilson and his staff were out and about in rural Illinois talking to water and wastewater operators about their struggles as well as their strategies. The interviews were part of a ISAWWA Small Systems Committee (SCC) initiative to bring to light the significant challenges encountered by small systems across the state. 

The results of these interviews were published as a series of eight articles entitled "Putting the Focus on Small Systems" in the Fall 2017 edition of ISAWWA's Splash magazine. Each article describes the unique challenges encountered by a specific system.

In the small town of Monticello, for instance, water works manager Scott Bailey (shown above with WaterOperator staff member Alison Meanor) describes how he manages an aging distribution system while tackling arsenic compliance issues. And in the small communities of Beason and Chestnut, Chair of the Water District Board Mark Carlin shares how the board proactively reached out to RCAP staff for help with funding much-needed infrastructure improvements. 

Many thanks to the operators, board members, technical assistance providers and government officials who agreed to meet with us and talk about their systems!  

The Trouble With Salt

The Trouble With Salt

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report and a new university study both find that many U.S. waterways are becoming increasingly salty, contributing to corrosion in public water distribution systems in systems of all sizes across the country. Areas in the snowy northern U.S are particularly vulnerable because of road salt use, while in the Midwest, certain fertilizers with high potassium content play an additional role. If left untreated, salty water can accelerate corrosion of lead-containing pipes and joints, and can potentially release lead into drinking water.

So what is a small water system to do? Because water treatment options for salt are expensive and complicated, it makes sense to first coordinate with your public works staff to identify opportunities to reduce salt use using proven BMPs. This new web-based tool from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency can help winter maintenance organizations maintain performance while reducing salt use and saving money. This tool works for any location where road salt is used as a de-icer. In addition, this factsheet from New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services includes a concise listing of recommendations to follow for application of road salt. And finally, this recent Washington Post article suggests applying brines and different salt compounds, along with upgrading salt-spreading equipment and developing better land-use strategies.

It also makes good sense to involve your customers, since 45-50 percent of road salt sources come from private roads and parking lots. Here is an example of a handy postcard that can be distributed in your community with simple rules for protecting clean water.

More than $36 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on corrosion control to reduce lead and copper in our tap water, according to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council. Reducing the detrimental affects of salt can only help mitigate this cost, while protecting public health and our valuable drinking water supplies.

Featured Video: What It Takes To Replace A Lead Service Line

Featured Video: What It Takes To Replace A Lead Service Line

Whether your utility is considering, or actually implementing, a lead service line replacement program, this 5-minute video can help you visualize the process involved. Join Water Distribution Supervisor Mark Schweiter, from the City of Galesburg, IL, in the trenches (literally!) to learn, step-by-step, what it takes to replace a lead service line.

This video can also be shared with homeowners, local officials, community groups and other stakeholders to achieve a common understanding of the equipment, personnel, labor and costs associated with replacing lead pipes. To find out more about the City of Galesburg's Lead Service Line Replacement program, including infographics, location maps and factsheets, click here.

The Problem With PFCs

The Problem With PFCs
There certainly has been lots of buzz over the scope and extent of perfluorinated chemical (PFCs) contamination of drinking water lately. A Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA water contaminant data found 65 water utilities in 24 states and territories had at least one sample that came back above the threshold for these chemicals. Altogether, these utilities serve more than six million people. According to one Center for Disease Control official, the presence and concentrations of these chemicals is "one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades."

So what do we know about PFCs, then? PFCs are a family of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of products such as textiles, packaging, and cleaning products and are also additives in coating/plating processes. One of their most significant uses has been as a compound in firefighting foams used to put out jet fuel fires. In fact, most of the communities dealing with this contamination are ones that rely on groundwater and are located near military installations or airports.

Although scientists are still studying the link between PFCs and certain health issues, some research suggests that exposure to these chemical compounds can cause cancer, and/or liver, thyroid, pancreatic, kidney and fertility problems, among other things. Moreover, PFCs are stable in the environment and resist degradation, allowing them to seep out of underground storage tanks and build up in the bodies of animals and humans. 

While the U.S. EPA has issued health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFCs in drinking water, it is still evaluating health effects before taking any further action. These advisories are designed to provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing water systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect people. But just exactly who will pay for these actions, or how the money will be located in the first place, is undetermined. The Seattle suburb of Issaquah, WA, for example, has already paid $1 million to install filters on its wells, and unless income can be generated from legal claims, this will certainly affect their customers' water bills. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, bipartisan legislation that will help expedite the analysis of PFCs, and provide resources to states dealing with the health challenges posed by these potentially harmful substances. And last week, the President signed H.R. 2810 which includes an amendment for a nationwide health study to be conducted by the CDC on the implications for PFCs in drinking water. In addition, some states, such as Michigan, are creating multi-agency response efforts to address this rapidly evolving public health issue. 

If you need more information about PFCs, a good place to start is this EPA website or video. In addition, EPA has published a new fact sheet entitled “Protecting Public Health & Addressing PFAS Chemicals,” to provide basic information to the general public. And the AWWA has its own fact sheet on the prevalence and assessment of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water, as well as this listing of resources for identifying and managing PFCs.  

Study Investigates Water Affordability

Study Investigates Water Affordability
A recent National Science Foundation study on water affordability found that roughly 13.8 million U.S. households could not afford to pay their water bill in 2014. The study found that while access to water has remained relatively affordable until recently, water rates have increased around 41 percent in just the past seven years. Should the rate hikes continue at this pace, according to the report, more than one-third of all U.S. households—35.6 percent—will be unable to afford running water by 2022.

One American city, Philadelphia, has taken measures to address this challenge, through a new program—the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). Enrollees' monthly water bills are not based on consumption but rather set as a percentage of  household income and size. Eligible households are provided with water conservation education along with free leak detection tests and low-flow plumbing fixtures. 

Using data collected from income-based gas & electric utility programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado, consultants are predicting that Philadelphia's water department will see a net gain in revenue as a result of lowering the rates and increasing compliance. Perhaps this new approach can be a model for others to follow in addressing a widening water affordability gap.

Interested in assessing affordability at your utility? Here is an easy-to-use Excel tool courtesy of UNC Environmental Finance Center to assess the relative affordability of water & wastewater rates using multiple metrics. Interested in learning more about customer assistance programs (CAPs), how to fund them, legal hurdles and their expanding importance? Listen to this podcast featuring Stacey Isaac Berahzer from The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (EFC). 

Responding to Cold Weather Main Breaks

Recent extreme cold weather has affected a large numbers of private and public water lines across the country, resulting in low pressure, main breaks and water service disruptions, including this one at New York's JFK airport.  During the cold snap over the 2018 New Year's holiday, the St. Louis region alone had to deal with 60 breaks per day, with more than 40 crews out at a time. 

Responding to these events, both the dramatic and the more "invisible" ones, can be particularly challenging and can put utility staff at risk. Here are some resources that can help when frigid weather causes trouble: 

  • USEPA's Extreme Cold and Winter Storms Incident Action Checklist
  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Intro to Small System Systems chapter section on methods for thawing out frozen water lines (p. 181).
  • Of course, prevention is the best cure, so here is Indiana AWWA's updated winterizing checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town the next time around. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Need a good public education tool to explain the water main break repair process to the general public? Check out this video from the city of Midland, Michigan showing how water distribution crews handle main breaks during the cold winter months. And here is another example from the city of Arlington, VA.

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?
The challenges of operating and maintaining a small system water treatment plant can be overwhelming, especially these days, but it is always good to know that your efforts are paying off - and not only because your system is meeting compliance. There is another important contribution you are making to the community as well: the water you help provide can actually make people happy.

How can we tell? According a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, drinking water has a significant impact on our mood. The researchers found that not drinking enough water was associated with negative mood, including fatigue and confusion, compared to those who drank enough water. 

But is isn't just the quantity that matters - the quality is important as well. Recently, author Dan Buettner teamed up with Gallup’s social scientists to develop an index that assesses measurable expressions of happiness and identifies where Americans are living their best lives. The results of this index are the subject of Buettner's new book, The Blue Zones of HappinessAmong the surprises Buettner turned up while conducting his research: “There’s a strong correlation between quality of water and happiness." 

In fact, according to OECD Better Life Index, water quality satisfaction leads to higher overall sense of well-being. The United States, for example, does fairly well in terms of water quality, as 84% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, higher than the OECD country average measurement of 81%. And this important measure seems to be shared by all high scoring nations. Cheers! 

Pipe Wars

Pipe Wars
Did you know there's a battle going on under our feet? A recent New York Times article unearths the lobbying war between two powerful industries, plastic and iron, over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.

To be sure, pipe material selection can be a complex process. Piping material choices can be influenced by a whole host of factors such as geography, soil characteristics, flow capacity needed, system pressures and more. Some utilities use a single type of piping, while others may use a wide variety depending on specific sites and needs. Moreover, municipal and utility leaders must then navigate through budget constraints and marketing hype as manufacturers fight for a piece of the infrastructure pie.

It is no wonder that operators may need more information before making piping decisions. This webinar video from the Water Research Foundation about the State of the Science of Plastic Pipe provides case studies of how different utilities choose piping materials. The researchers involved in this report found that one of the most important considerations when choosing piping material is overall life cycle cost. 

Don't forget that there may be unique considerations to include in the decision-making process. For example, last month Bruce Macler from USEPA Region 9 wrote to us to let us know that "an interesting outcome of the recent California wildfires was that plastic water & sewer lines melted in some areas."  Who would have thought?

Interested in a no-nonsense listing of pros and cons of available piping materials? Check out this article.

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer
A recent New York Times article reports that the EPA’s revised rule on arsenic contamination in public drinking water systems has resulted in fewer lung, bladder and skin cancers. This finding, published last month in Lancet Public Health journal, is the result of a study that compared the urinary arsenic levels of over 14,000 people in 2003, before the new rule went into effect, to those in 2014, well after the rule had been fully implemented. The researchers found a 17 percent reduction in arsenic levels in this time period and they estimate that this reduction has resulted in 200-900 fewer lung and bladder cancers and 50 few skin cancers annually.

This finding is reassuring to water systems that have spent time, money and effort on arsenic rule compliance – it is always good to know that regulations are truly making a difference in the lives of community members.

It also highlights the importance of water systems, and especially those with groundwater sources, working with their local and state officials to determine the best way to test for arsenic and, if necessary, treat their water supply.  And because two water systems with similar levels of arsenic in their source water often need two entirely different types of treatment technology, and because these technologies can be expensive, knowledge about arsenic compliance, treatment and funding sources is essential.

Luckily, WaterOperator.org can help point you in the right direction when you choose "arsenic" as the category in our document database. A good first stop is also this EPA webpage which offers lots of resources and tools to operators, such as a rule summary and steps to take towards compliance.

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