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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Better ERPs Part 1: Hosting a Roundtable Discussion

Creating a strong emergency plan is often easier said than done—and the middle of an emergency is the worst time to discover you’ve forgotten something. This is the first of a four-part series with guides and tips to help you build a comprehensive emergency response plan. 

Before you start drafting, though, consider hosting a water emergency roundtable discussion. These events provide a unique opportunity to connect water security with broader preparedness and community resiliency efforts underway in your region. Here’s a quick glance at what you can do to host a successful discussion: 

  1. Consult with partners within your water community to identify the groups that need to be at the table. Some groups to consider include hospitals, schools, farm operations, industrial parks, municipal pools, and first responders.
  2. Set a date and secure a meeting place that meets your meeting needs.
  3. Work with partners or co-hosts to ensure that the room has the equipment needed, such as a laptop, PowerPoint projector, and pens and pads for meeting participants.
  4. Have your water utility manager or superintendent call the groups to invite them to the event. A personal call typically results in a more positive response and can be followed by a formal invite and RSVP request.
  5. Call confirmed participants to outline what types of information participants will need to bring with them, how the discussion will be facilitated, and how sensitive information will be treated.
  6. Confirm with partners or co-hosts who will be responsible for facilitating the discussion, compiling participant data, putting together registration packets, welcoming participants, presenting, taking notes, and writing a meeting summary.
  7. Arrive at least on hour before the event is scheduled to set up materials and manage last minute details.
  8. Use meeting notes and discussed action items to develop a short report for participants.
  9. Write and distribute an internal and external report on progress towards action items approximately six months after the event.
  10. Determine the need for a follow-up meeting.

For more tips and sample invitation scripts, read the Water Emergency Roundtable—Outline for Discussion developed by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and EPA Region 5. And check back for part two of our series for free templates you can use when you're ready to write your emergency response plan. 

Do You Rely on Your SCADA System Too Much?

*Originally posted on SmallWaterSupply.org July 9, 2012 by Steve Wilson. 

I was at an asset management workshop recently that included a number of state regulators. The theme was asset management and certification, but O & M and the tie-in to understanding your assets kept coming up.

O & M Is Tied To Asset Management
I realize the title of this blog post is about SCADA systems, and many small communities don't even have them, but whether you use SCADA or not, the principles behind good O & M are important for all systems. It's all about understanding your system, the equipment, infrastructure, and treatment, as well as the process of running the plant (O & M). I know everyone hears about the importance of testing generators monthly and servicing pumps when recommended, but many times these things are low priority. Weeks turn into months and months turn into years. I was at a plant this summer that was using a federal grant to get a new generator for their water plant. I had just been in the wastewater plant for this same community this last fall where there was a perfectly good generator that would serve the purpose. I brought this up to the consultant managing the grant, but he said it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, the community had no warranty on the generator because they didn't follow the maintenance schedule. It had sat in a garage for number of years and not been ran. As a taxpayer, that's frustrating, but as a small systems advocate, it gives us all a black eye.

So On To Best Practices

At the workshop, someone from Michigan mentioned that one of their larger communities was planning to shut down their SCADA system for a week. This wasn't being done to allow upgrades or changes to the system, this was being done because the Water Supt. wanted to make sure his staff knew how to run the plant. This system is being proactive, both from an emergency standpoint, and also from an operations standpoint. We all rely on technology and automatic this or that for so many things these days, but to really "know" your plant, to be able to troubleshoot and tell when something isn't quite running right, you really have to have a comprehensive understanding of how your system works.

I Know, You Already Know Your Plant That Well
You are thinking, I already have that level of understanding of my plant, I know when something doesn't sound right, look right, or even feel right. Thats great, but what about the next level of support? What happens when you are not there? Do you ever take vacation or have to be out of town for a day or two? Is the person left in charge of your plant as familiar with your system as you are? Do they know your plant well enough to troubleshoot when a problem pops up? They need to have that level of understanding, or have something they can turn to that has those details.

That brings us back to one of those O & M things that are a pain, take time, and because you know the plant so well, keep putting off or don't see a need for. You should have an O & M manual for your plant. No one else can write it, and its only as useful as the information you put into it. It comes down to being prepared and taking full responsibility for the operation of the plant. That also means being prepared in case you can't be there for some reason.

Getting Started
First of all, develop an emergency response plan. There are templates available from a number of sources. You can contact a TA provider you work with, they will be able to get you started. If you want to look at some of the better ones, type in "emergency response plan" in our document keyword search, and use "type = templates". But, for those of you that already have an ERP, take the next step, develop an O & M plan for your plant. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Florida require O & M plans, I'm sure there are others. New Jersey has an O & M template that operators can use to help them develop their O & M plan, as do Florida, Louisiana, and Vermont. Georgia has a guidance manual as well. It was also brought up at the workshop that Colorado is developing an O & M and training manual geared toward walking you through developing an O & M plan for your facility. It sounds like it will be a great resource. Once the Colorado document is available, we'll post an update and provide those details. Lastly, if you need some help, email or call us. We can either help you directly or find someone in your area who can help you get started.

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.

Winterizing for Consumers and Small Water Systems

Here in central Illinois, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the trees are starting to turn. For those of us living in colder climates, the time is coming for us to batten down the hatches and prepare for winter’s snow, ice, and cold. Recently, one such forward-thinking operator asked us for information on winterizing service lines. After a little searching, here’s some guidance we found for him and for anyone else preparing their system for winter cold.

Winterizing for Water Systems

For operators looking to prepare their systems for winter, the Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems Using Ground Water (developed by the U.S. EPA and adapted by the Massachusetts DEP) provides month-by-month guidance on routine maintenance procedures that can help keep a system in top running condition. Search the document using the keyword “winter” to find relevant maintenance cards. The Indiana Section of the AWWA also has a winterizing checklist. See page 8 of this newsletter for their helpful tips and hints for water operators.

Consumer Information: Winterizing Plumbing and Thawing Frozen Pipes

Of course, operators are not the only ones facing the problem of inadequately winterized or frozen pipes. Consumers often need extra guidance in properly preparing their homes for cold weather, or in dealing with frozen pipes as they occur. Some resources for consumer information include:
  • RCAP’s consumer information flier on winterizing tips for around the house,
  • the Red Cross’s information page on winterizing pipes, and safely thawing pipes that have frozen,
  • this video by a real estate agent showing how to properly drain outside spigots for the winter,
  • and this video by a building contractor in Boulder, Colorado, which includes tips for turning off water to the house in the event of a burst pipe, ways of regulating temperatures so pipes don’t freeze in the first place, and advice on safely thawing pipes when they do freeze.

To see how other utilities have handled consumer information on winterizing pipes on their websites, see the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (for colder climates) and the Macon Water Authority (for climates with relatively mild winters, where the ground seldom freezes deeper than two inches). Though there may be contact information or policy information specific to these utilities on these pages, both provide thorough, accessible information to frequently asked consumer questions.

Are there other great winterizing resources that should be highlighted here? Tell us in the comments!

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