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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: TXWARN Tabletop Exercise

Featured Video: TXWARN Tabletop Exercise
Most areas of the country will have to deal with a large-scale disaster at some point. Whether it's an earthquake, blizzard, hurricane, tornado outbreak, flooding, or large-scale drought, most regions are great places to live until they're really, really not. Water utilities play a vital role in disaster scenarios, whether they're ensuring the delivery of clean, safe drinking water or safely removing and treating wastewater. Unfortunately, just because these services are vital doesn't mean they'll remain unaffected in a disaster scenario. In 2005, the experiences of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina drove home just how vital utilities are to the disaster response process. However, many utilities are not used to their role as emergency responders, and may not have a plan in place if their services were needed in the event of a disaster.

One way to plan for a disaster before you're in the midst of it is to participate in a tabletop exercise. In a tabletop exercise, the major players in a disaster event---police, fire, utilities, mayor, emergency response coordinator---all sit down together and consider step-by-step how they'd respond to a specific disaster if it hit their hometown. It helps to be specific: What if the tornado hit the water tower on the way into town? What if the main road through town was blocked with debris? What if there was a power outage? Specific questions like these can help you think about your resources and emergency planning in more detail.

One very detailed introduction to disaster response tabletop exercises begins with today's video. In 2011, the state-level disaster response agencies for the state of Texas met with TXWARN and tried to plan a response to a fake hurricane, as described to them by facilitators from the consulting group Horsley Witten. The exercise begins with the "hurricane" still out at sea while the agencies at the table think through how they would need to plan depending on where the hurricane makes landfull. It progresses through landfall and widespread rain and storms, and concludes with the participants talking about the exercise and identifying things they could change or improve to plan for a real emergency. This first video is an hour and a half long, and the entire run of the exercise comes to a little over 6 hours of video. But even watching selections from the videos will give you an idea of what kinds of problems and solutions might be worth considering for your own utility's disaster planning.

PT 1 TXWARN TABLE TOP from Texas AWWA on Vimeo.

Tabletop Exercise Part 2

Tabletop Exercise Part 3

Tabletop Exercise Part 4

If you'd like to perform your own tabletop exercise, the USEPA has tools and resources available here.

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! 

Featured Video: Wastewater Treatment Series

Featured Video: Wastewater Treatment Series
If you've worked in administration at a wastewater utility, you probably know the whole process is a lot more complicated than some might think. Even the process of getting the waste from the houses in the community to the treatment center requires vigilance. And then the steps of the treatment process start to pile up. Preliminary, primary, secondary, and then there's sludge and effluent and different ways of handling those. Whether you're the mayor, on the board of directors, answering phones in the office, or cutting the checks, you've probably had to deal with different stage of this process over the course of your job.

If that's the case, here's a chance to brush up on the details of wastewater treatment without getting overwhelmed by technical language. In this week's video series, knowledgeable staffers from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) explain the technical steps of wastewater in layman's terms. These videos are intended to help leaders, board members, and other administrative staff understand what's going on in the operation of their utility. This understanding can help you understand how to make wise operational, maintenance, and expansion decisions that take the realities of utility operation into account. The introduction video is embedded below; each of the following videos can be viewed by clicking on the titles below.

Wastewater Treatment - Introduction from RCAP on Vimeo.

  1. Wastewater Treatment - Collection System
  2. Wastewater Treatment - Preliminary Treatment
  3. Wastewater Treatment - Primary Treatment
  4. Wastewater Treatment - Secondary Treatment
  5. Wastewater Treatment - Solids and Sludge Handling
  6. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disinfection
  7. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disposal

For more on wastewater treatment for non-operators, see RCAP's A Drop of Knowledge handbook for wastewater systems. (There's one for drinking water systems too!)

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.

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.

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.

Featured Video: Beyond the Drain

Featured Video: Beyond the Drain
Last week, we featured a kid-friendly video describing the water treatment process. This week's video from the Value of Water Coalition does the same thing, but for wastewater treatment. Kids are passionate about what they learn, and sometimes our smaller customers can be our biggest advocates. Get them started with these great videos!



For past kid-friendly videos, see Freddy the Fish (stormwater quality) and Water and You (surface water treatment).

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 Videos: Water and You: The Water Treatment Process

Featured Videos: Water and You: The Water Treatment Process
Need to give a presentation at a school? Have a nephew or niece or a kid of your own who wants to understand what you do all day? Sure, operating a drinking water plant involves a lot of carefully-executed technical processes and meticulous monitoring. But sometimes you need to explain the fun, simple version of your job.

This week's featured video can help. This 4-and-a-half minute video follows Splashy the water droplet from his home in a reservoir through a surface water treatment system. At the end, he's disinfected with ozone and ready to drink. If you have a surface water treatment plant, this could be a great way to introduce your younger customers to the work you do.



For more water utility videos for young viewers, see our previous blog entry on Freddy the Fish.