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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: Liquid Assets

Featured Video: Liquid Assets
Even if you're not into New Years' resolutions, the turn of the year can be a great time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. Though I don't really make New Years' resolutions, I do like to take this time to think about my goals and strategies for achieving them. Then instead of testing my willpower against a resolution, I can focus on taking a small step toward a goal or even just thanking the people who have helped me along the way. And while this is a great time for personal reflection, organizations can benefit from asking these questions as well.

A lot of questions facing water utilities are raised in this week's video. It covers a surprising number of topics in just 27 minutes, including crumbling underground infrastructure, the political factors that keep water rates too low to cover needed repairs, and the experiences of small, rural Minnesota communities grappling with infrastructure and sourcewater protection issues. Each issue is presented briefly but thoughtfully, with plenty of input from the local politicians and city officials who had to deal with these problems directly. Though the video was originally created for a PBS station in Minnesota, both drinking water and wastewater utilities from around the country will find a lot to agree with and consider for their own utilities.



For more on rate-setting for small utilities, check out the RCAP handbook Formulate Great Rates and the EFCN rate dashboards.

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

Make no mistake about it, small town utilities can represent a lucrative investment for private companies who are offering cash-strapped officials across the nation a way out of their water woes. A recent article in the Washington Post is taking a long look at how municipalities are dealing with urgently needed repairs to their water infrastructure, sometimes by offloading the burden to for-profit water companies. According to the article, investor-owned companies bought 48 water and sewer utilities in 2015, 53 systems in 2016, and 23 more through March of this year (figures from Bluefield Research).

Yet the decision to sell can come at a great cost - literally. When a private company takes over a water system, decisions on rate increases are taken out of the hands of local officials and instead decided or monitored by a state utilities regulator. "What can initially seem like a great deal" says Bolingbrook, Illinois Mayor Roger Claar in this 2016 Better Government Association article, can turn quickly sour: “The reality is [these communities] get rate increases like they never imagined.” And there are other drawbacks as well.

Ask the residents of Charlestown, Indiana who are currently in the crossfire of their town's controversial move to sell their water system to Indiana American Water Company, a deal which will significantly raise their water rates. A community group called NOW (No Outsourcing Water) is actively opposing the sale, and has filed a complaint with the state's utility regulatory commission, calling into question their mayor's motives.

Indeed, loss of public accountability can be a result when towns sell utilities. With publically-owned systems, if public officials do not respond to public concerns about the water, they can be voted out of office in the next election cycle. But when a utility is sold, it no longer has to answer to voters for contamination problems, or for rate increases for that matter. In the meantime, the water system in Charlestown still suffers from excessive manganese which turns the water brown.

Although the nation-wide percentage of privately-owned water utilities is still rather small (12%), 30-70% of water utilities in Indiana and 14 other states have gone private according to the Washington Post article. Why are so many of these towns then willing to sell?

Well, for one, private water companies have the capital to invest in infrastructure and meeting water quality regulations. Simply stated, these companies are in a better position to fix problems created by a history of funding shortages. These water company acquisitions can free up towns to use their limited funds to hire and retain critical police/fire and other staff and make much-needed repairs to roads and more. So unless state and federal funding can keep up with the acute need for expensive water infrastructure improvements (which, according to this article, it hasn't -  and in fact has been decreasing), there often is no place to turn for budget-crunched public officials looking to protect public health.

But this is not happening across the board. While some small towns are considering selling, groups like Food & Water Watch are actually seeing a reversal of the private water trend especially among larger municipalities - They have compiled the water rates of the 500 largest community water systems in the country (the largest water rate survey of its kind in the country) and found that there is an ongoing nationwide trend toward public ownership of water systems.

All the same, the key finding of this report is that of the 12% of water companies that do operate privately, most are located in small, rural communities. So who wins and who loses? Each situation is unique, and for many small towns, the answers do not come easily.

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

Question: What do the following small system programs have in common? 

  • A small system electronic asset mapping project in Nevada
  • Free consolidation assessments and facilitations in Texas
  • New equipment to help with energy efficiency audits in Utah
  • A licensed operator internship program in New Jersey

Answer: They were all funded with Drinking Water State Revolving Fund set-asides.

While there are many critical infrastructure needs the DWSRF program addresses across the nation, sometimes valuable non-infrastructure opportunities such as these can get lost in the shuffle. A new analysis from the EPA is helping shine a light on the wide variety of capacity-development projects funded via set-asides that have been implemented across the country. Taking a look at this analysis is particularly helpful if state-level decision-makers need ideas about how to use set-aside funding, or have questions about set-aside funding in general. 

Using data from state DWSRF plans and capacity development reports, the analysis can help answer these needs and questions. It shows that states are using set-aside funding in the following nine (9) areas: Training and Technical Assistance, Financial Management and Rate Studies, Source Water Protection, Program Implementation (Capacity Development), Water and Energy Efficiency, Partnerships, Data Management, and Emerging Contaminants. What is important to note here is that there is a large amount of flexibility inherent in the program, which is a great thing when you are looking for ways to support important capacity-building programs in your own backyard.

  

What exactly is a set-aside fund? According to the EPA, set-asides are portion of each state's annual capitalization grant that support water system capacity, operator certification, source water protection, and training/technical assistance to PWSs. Set-aside funding cannot be used for water system infrastructure projects. Instead, the set-asides support "activities necessary to ensure safe and affordable drinking water by: (1) providing states with flexible tools to assist water systems with training, technical assistance and pre-construction activities; and (2) extending and enhancing the impact of DWSRF funding by ensuring that water systems have the technical, managerial and financial capacity to obtain a loan and to effectively maintain their resources." States can take up to approximately 31 percent of their capitalization grant for set-aside funding. 

Each state can develop its own funding balance between infrastructure and non-infrastruture DWSRF loans, and this balance can change year-to-year. Finally, states should review their Public Water Supply System Program priorities on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of set-aside usage. Happy planning! 

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities
As winter gets underway, many of communities are thinking about energy costs and energy savings. Utilities will recognize these concerns as well. Did you know 30-40% of a municipality's energy budget is spent on the treatment of drinking water and wastewater? Chances are someone at your utility has been made aware. With energy costs rising everywhere, it doesn't hurt to save money where you can and perform an energy audit at your utility.

This 7-and-a-half minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) doesn't go into the details of a full energy audit. But it does outline several areas where energy audits often find opportunities for savings. It can be a great way to introduce water boards, mayors, and other decision-makers to the benefits of energy audits. And even without being a full audit, it might give you some good ideas for your utility. Though the video highlights wastewater treatment facilities, most of the tips could be easily applied to drinking water utilities as well.

Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're interested in getting an energy audit for your utility, RCAP staff are able to carry out energy audits for both water and wastewater utilities. To find the RCAP partner that serves your region, check their website.

Featured Video: The Importance of an Operator

For Thanksgiving approaches, we want to take time to give thanks for the water operators who help ensure we have safe, delicious drinking water this holiday season.

As the employee(s) who handle technical operations at the utility, operators are probably the most important people to the overall operation of your system. They provide one of the most valuable services to Americans: they deliver the water that keeps us alive and treat our wastewater in order to protect the environment we live in. They keep us supplied with a necessity of life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

This video explains the operational and legal importance of operators to a water utility, and features working water operators discussing what they love about the job. It can provide great insight into the field for water utility board members, or high school or community college students who are considering joining the profession.

The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water Systems from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're a water or wastewater operator and reading our blog, thanks! We're grateful for your hard work toward making our communities a healthy and enjoyable place to live.

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!


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.

Contracting a Certified Water Operator

Many small systems across the nation depend on the services of a circuit rider, also known as a contract operator. In fact, according to this article by Lori Moore, Compliance Specialist at Colorado Department of Public Health, contract operators make up an incredible 33 percent of the total number of certified water professionals who supervise public systems!

Contract operators can help ensure regulatory compliance for less complex systems that do not need a full-time operator, they can respond to emergencies, attend sanitary surveys or help fill-in when a full-time operator cannot be found in the area. 

Whatever the reason, it is important to know how to select a contract operator, and then once selected, how to communicate effectively with them. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has recently published such a guide, outlining the responsibilities of both the responsible official/owner and the certified water operator. The guide also includes a contract operator interview tool and topics for developing terms of a contract.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state offering guidelines for developing a contract. For example, here is Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation list of suggested information and requirements to include and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has it's own guide as well. Many states also offer lists of current certified contract operators, like this one

Once selected, communication with the operator is key to developing a successful relationship. Because the work contract operators do is immensely valuable, especially these days, establishing clear expectations can go a long way for everyone involved. 

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a DRONE!

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a DRONE!

So you are thinking it is about time to inspect the outside of your water tanks and above ground assets. According to the Illinois EPA, a water storage tank should be inspected at least every 5 years, so it just may be that time again.

You are probably familiar with the traditional tools for condition inspections such as ladders, scaffolding, harnesses, cherry pickers, helicopters, ROVs, divers and cameras. But these days, you can add another tool to your toolbox: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more simply, drones. Drones can offer a safer and possibly more cost-effective method of visualizing the condition of a utility’s facilities. Certainly, these “eyes in the sky” can take a visual inspection to an entirely new level – literally.   

There are clear benefits to using drone technology. According to this Wall Street Journal article, researchers believe the use of drones could cut utility costs and improve worker safety, both for routine inspections and for surveying damage after disasters. Plus, set up and operating costs can be less expensive – initial drone systems can be had for as little as $6,000. Drones can also be used to supplement your GIS program for asset management and to map assets in remote and rural locations.

Yet there are some drawbacks as well. Depending on state and local ordinances and laws, there may be height and line of sight regulations as well as special training/licensing requirements for operators.

Interested in finding out more?

There will be a technical session on using drones at the 2017 APWA Public Works Institute in California in September. And the NCAWWA is offering a session at their 2017 Institute, also in September. Can’t wait until September? The Operator Training Committee of Ohio is offering a training in a few short weeks.

Ready to give it a try?

NJ Water Association offers a drone service for asset management purposes, emergency response planning, tank inspections and more. Their drone and operator are both registered with FAA to maintain compliance with FAA Part 107 requirements.

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Paying for maintenance and upgrades to your utility is no small task, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cost of replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities could be almost $190 billion in the coming decades. It’s unlikely a single source can meet your costs, and smart financing will instead require a mix of external funding, capital planning and rate setting to meet your goal.

External funds

The U.S. EPA provides a thorough starting point for finding external funding sources. Federal funding for water infrastructure includes:

There is also funding available at various agencies designated specifically for water and wastewater utilities dealing with declared federal disasters, or those seeking funds for proactive planning and design.

Funding options at the state level vary, but the Environmental Finance Center Network maintains a list of funding sources by state. The lists will include the last date of update, basic information on how to apply, and staff contact information to learn more.

Finally, there may be local or private foundation grants available, depending on your situation.

Capital planning

As the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states, “Long-term planning is required to schedule major infrastructure improvements and spread the capital costs over many years in order to avoid having to raise rates significantly in any one year to pay for a capital project that was unplanned.

To that end, the center has developed resources and compiled best practice guides to help small utilities develop Capital Investment Plans and/or Asset Management Plans. These include the “Plan to Pay” tool, which uses Excel to project your fund balance (revenues, expenses and reserves), and necessary rate increases for the next 20 years.

Rate setting

Once you know your options for external funding and projected balance for infrastructure improvements, you’ll know whether and when a rate change is needed. View our past blogs on Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process and Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need.

As always, you can find additional resources in the WaterOperator.org document library, including examples specific to your state by selecting “Financial management” under Category and your location under State.