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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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: 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.

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Coming this October, AWWA will host a webinar entitled Water Sector Black Sky Resilience. A Black Sky event is a long-duration, widespread power outage that could, in turn, cause a whole host of additional catastrophes. 

According to The Electric Infrastructure Security Council, A Black Sky event can have many causes: high magnitude earthquakes, severe space weather, electromagnetic pulses or interferences in the upper atmosphere (the kind that a nuclear detonation might cause), hurricanes, cyber-terrorism, coordinated power grid assaults and more.

Hurricane Harvey has offered a glimpse of the impact a Black Sky event would have on water and wastewater systems and the communities they serve. Black Sky events would cause much longer-term outages than the typical hazard event, and help might not come as quickly, or as easily. Back-up generators might be able to provide a certain amount of power, as long as they are in working order, but what if the treatment chemicals you depend on run out and can't be delivered to you?

Last year, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council issued a 212-page report analyzing water sector disaster scenarios and these types of cascading failures - power losses that lead to water losses and the consequences of those losses. The report concluded that this was an area that needed more analysis and planning. The report also recommends that smaller systems be provided with training as well as assistance in partnering with larger utilities that have more resources. 

Clearly, the effects of a long-term water outage on public health could be devasting, and this is why it is important to incorporate Black Sky response and recovery considerations into disaster management plans. The good news is that if you have a disaster management plan in place, you are already heading in the right direction. Using tools such as this 2016 E-Pro Handbook II (Water), you can expand your plan to include even the most severe emergencies. And this resource form the U.S. Energy Information Administration can keep you updated with live energy disruption reports across the nation. 

The USEPA also has a whole host of tools to help your utility prepare for a Black Sky event including a Power Resilience Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities, a Drinking Water and Wastewater Utility Generator Preparedness guide, and a video entitled "Power to Keep Water Moving" (click below to view). Finally, be sure to check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' EPFAT tool, a secure web-based tool to input and store emergency power assessment data. Using this tool can help USACE provide temporary power faster, getting you the right generator at the right time. 

Featured Video: WARNs in Action

Featured Video: WARNs in Action
WARNs have been a valuable asset to water and wastewater utilities for several years now. In the event of an emergency---ranging from a tornado to a flood to a major main break---fellow operators can come to your aid and help your utility get back on its feet. This is accomplished through a Mutual Aid Agreement.

Mutual Aid Agreements are often misunderstood. They are not set-in-stone requirements that you must give aid, regardless of your capacity to do so. Utilities volunteer to offer aid; no one is forced. Mutual aid agreements are different from regional partnerships. This past summer, we talked about the benefits of a full-blown regional partnership, complete with shared responsibilities among operators and centralized accounting and assets. Even regional partnerships can benefit from joining WARNs, since a large-scale emergency like a flood, wildfire, hurricane, or earthquake could still decimate an entire region. But if a regional partnership isn't of interest to your utility, a mutual aid agreement is still worthwhile. Signing on to a mutual aid agreement typically does not cost money, and in many cases utilities that volunteer to help can be reimbursed.

This 3-minute video from earlier in the history of WARNs provides a general introduction to the concept. It also describes an activation of COWARN in Colorado, in response to a major water contamination event in a small rural town.

To look for a WARN in your state, learn more about the idea, or view situation reports from WARN activations around the country, see the AWWA's WARN website. To see Illinois' ILWARN flyer for small systems, go here. And if you know of a particularly good WARN and small systems story, let us know!

Featured Video: Water Utility Response On-The-Go

As winter gives way to spring, many of us look forward to the traditional activities associated with warmer weather: cookouts, swimming, gardening, camping. Of course, for some of us, spring and summer will bring less welcome events: storms, flooding, droughts, and extreme heat. As we approach the turning of the season, it doesn't hurt to refresh our memories on the resources available when the weather turns not-so-pleasant.

Water Utility Response On-The-Go is a site specifically formatted to be comfortably viewed on smart phones and other mobile devices. The homepage displays a menu of links for tracking severe weather, contacting response partners, responding to incidents, taking notes and recording damage, informing incident command, and accessing additional planning info. The weather tracking and response partners links use location data to help you access forecasts and contacts specific to your area. The Respond to Incidents section includes action checklists for drought, earthquake, extreme cold and winter storms, extreme heat, flooding, hurricanes, tornado, tsunami, volcano, and wildfire. The option labeled Take Notes and Record Damage leads to a section that includes a generic damage assessment form, while Inform Incident Command includes ICS forms 213 and 214 (the General Message and Activity Log, respectively), as well as additional information on Incident Command. The section on additional planning info includes links to EPA webpages on emergencies/incidents, planning, response, and recovery, as well as to WARN and mutual aid info.

Some of the external links from the site are not formatted for mobile viewing, and the .pdf forms may require an Adobe Reader app if you wish to fill them out on your mobile device. However, the site overall is well organized and easy to navigate, and can be a great tool for utilities dealing with weather emergencies and natural disasters. For a visual overview of how the site works, see the EPA’s video, below.
 

Interested in attending training or finding more information on emergency planning? Search our calendar and document database using the category “Water Security/Emergency Response.”

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

Better ERPs Part 4: Is Your System All-Hazard Ready?

Last year saw record-breaking heat, severe storms, and worsening drought conditions across the country. And current NOAA predictions suggests the first half of 2016 won’t be much different as El Nino continues to have widespread effects. If these events have left you asking, “What would I do if something like that happened in my community,” you’re not alone. 

In part four of our series on improving emergency response plans, we want to help you find an answer. The tips and resources below will walk you through the process of developing an all-hazards response plan and provide specific guidance for some of the most common hazards.

  1. Understand your vulnerability to extreme weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a great resource here. Their PrepareAthon website has information on when and where extreme events are most likely to take place.
  2. Identify vulnerable assets. Are key equipment located in the floodplain? Are your circuitry and control panels secured for high winds?
  3. Identify possible mitigation measures would protect vulnerable assets and priority operations. Putting in place a procedure to top off water in storage tanks prior to a hurricane or bolting down chemical tanks in advance of a flood are just a few examples.
  4. Determine which mitigation measures should be implemented. Keep in mind costs, effectiveness, and practicality when making this decision.
  5. Identify actions that will need to be taken immediately before and after an event. For example, sandbagging treatment sheds or turning off water meters at destroyed homes and buildings.
  6. Write a plan to implement mitigation and rapid-response measures. This should be revised periodically and integrated into your utility's overall asset management process.
  7. Be prepared to act. Include rapid-response measures in your employee training programs and keep staff and other stakeholders up-to-date on any changes.

For more planning tips and information on common hazards, check out these resources and visit our documents database. You can also learn more about drought preparedness in part two of this series.

Water/Wastewater All-Hazards Boot Camp Training
This training course is designed for water and wastewater employees responsible for emergency response and recovery activities. It also explains why and how to implement an all-hazards program. The program walks you through a scenario with Our Town Utility staff, lets you hear from water sector representatives, and tests your knowledge on prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH)-related Emergencies & Outbreaks
This CDC portal offers a comprehensive set of tools and resources for not only responding to a crisis but also preparing for the worst. Preparedness resources include preparedness toolkits, preparedness training, and directions for emergency disinfection of water.

Climate Ready Water Utility: Adaptation Strategies Guide & Planning for Extreme Weather Events
This webinar presentation highlights the Workshop Planner and the Adaptation Strategies Guide, and how a utility can use them both when developing adaptation plans. It also highlights utility experiences with the tools.

Drinking Water Natural Disaster Preparedness Guide
This 3-page document contains suggestions for public water supplies that the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) recognizes as lessons learned from areas in Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Flood Resilience: A Basic Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities
With a user-friendly layout, embedded videos, and flood maps to guide you, EPA's Flood Resilience Guide is your one-stop resource to know your flooding threat and identify practical mitigation options to protect your critical assets.

Incident Action Checklist – Tornado
Use this comprehensive list from U.S. EPA to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a tornado.

Emergency Response for Drinking and Wastewater Utilities
This EPA portal has a variety of tools, including mobile-friendly websites, to support utility preparedness and response.

Better ERPs Part 3: Are You Prepared for a Drought?

For those of us outside the arid West, it can be easy to push aside droughts and their impacts as something others have to worry about. But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor quickly reveals that droughts—even long-term ones—are a concern coast-to-coast. In fact, increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are exposing more and more communities to the risk of droughts and other extreme weather events.

Incorporating a drought contingency plan into your broader emergency response plan is one of the best ways to ensure your public water system is prepared for water shortages and other drought impacts. And there are a number of resources available to help you do just that.

The templates and guides below can help you design a plan that meets your system and community needs. Whether you use one of these or create your own, keep in mind these seven steps to an effective drought management plan. These were developed by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation based on the model used by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

  1. Seek public involvement by forming a committee of stakeholders who encourage and support a public "buy-in.
  2. Define goals and objectives, such as targets for reduced consumption, identifying which customers can and should be restricted and which cannot, legal requirements, minimum flow requirements, etc.
  3. Assess supply and demand—identify all existing and potential water supply sources and balance these against average and peak demand, historic demand trends, use by customer sector, interior vs. exterior use, and projected future demand.
  4. Define a system-specific drought index, such as ground and/or surface water storage, stream flows, soil moisture, rainfall deficit, well drawdown levels, and other indices.
  5. Identify potential mitigation measures, such as water audits, alternative supplies, leak detection and repair, public education, restrictions/bans on non-essential use, pricing disincentives (surcharges), and, finally, rationing.
  6. Assess potential impacts of mitigation measures, such as reduced revenues, customer acceptance, rate equity, legal implications, history, and implementation costs.
  7. Develop and implement the plan using the management strategies, templates, and statistics assembled during the assessment process.
If you don't see something that fits your system's needs below, search "drought" in our documents database to find more resources. You can also find information on water conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy for small utilities in Sustainable Infrastructure for Small System Public Services: A Planning and Resource Guide. And be sure to read the Part 2 of this four-part series for help building a comprehensive emergency response plan.

Drought Contingency Plan for a Public Water System (Example): ABC Water Company Drought Contingency Plan
This 11-page document provides an example of how to fill out the model drought contingency plan for retail public water suppliers.

Drought Management Toolkit for Public Water Suppliers
This 49-page handbook was developed by the Utah Division of Water Resources to help public water suppliers better prepare for and manage future droughts. This toolkit consists of two main elements: a model drought mitigation plan and a model drought response plan (or contingency plan, which can also be used to address other water shortages).

Drought Contingency Plan summary—Well Levels Known
This 1-page document, when completed, summarizes an operator's plan for a drought. It is broken down into three stages, depending on how severe the drought is.

Drought Contingency Plan: Public Water System
This 36-page template can be used for a drought contingency plan for a tribal public water system. The template covers a broad list of sections and topics with the aim of being applicable for a majority of the water systems. Because tribal water systems vary, it is recommended that the tribe edit and modify the template to best fit their specific situation and context, and only include those sections that are necessary.

Better ERPs Part 2: Templates

So you've held a water emergency roundtable discussion and are ready to put pen to paper, so to speak. Fortunately, you don't have to start with a blank piece of paper. There is a suite of resources available for utilities—and small water suppliers particularly—to help you prepare for the unknown and plan for the rare events.

The free templates provided here will help you get started. If you don't see something that fits your system's needs, search "emergency response plan templates" in our documents database to find more resources.

Emergency Response Planning Template for Public Drinking Water Systems

This 20-page document developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership is intended for use by any water system serving a population of 3,300 or fewer and can be modified to fit specific system needs. The template is intended to be used as a starting point based on what is relevant for the type, size, and complexity of the system.

Rural & Small Water and Wastewater System Emergency Response Plan Template
This 48-page template is designed to be a guide for Emergency Response Planning. Emergency response planning should be a coordinated and planned process. Proper planning can lessen the impact of an emergency. All staff should be trained as to their responsibility within the plan and how it will be implemented. This template was designed to address various emergency hazards that may occur in rural and small systems. It incorporates emergencies that may be the result of terrorism. Regardless of the type of emergency whether natural or man-made each system has the responsibility to be prepared to protect the public health and to restore services that may be impacted.

Disaster-Specific Preparedness/Response Plan for Public Drinking Water Systems - XYZ Water System Template
This 25-page template has been developed to help you prepare your Emergency Response Plan. The ERP Guide (see separate document, here) and Template is intended for use by any water system and may be modified to fit the specific needs of each system. The ERP guide follows the outline in the template—section by section

Emergency Response Plan Template
This 26-page form is an outline of an emergency response plan for water operators to fill out and complete. This document is in pdf form, but the fillable Word format of this document can be found here.

Emergency Response Plan of Action
This 40-page template is used to create an emergency response plan for a public water system. There are many situations that may cause impairment of water quality or disruption of service. In Maine, the most common is loss of water pressure or contamination of the water supply, source, or lines. Some common examples include main breaks, power outage, treatment failure, numerous types of contamination, extreme weather and or structural damage, floods, and equipment failure. This template goes over each topic to create the most efficient ERP. 

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. 

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