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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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.

Featured Video: Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority

There are a lot of rewards to living in a rural community: seeing just enough of your neighbors, lots of satisfying work, and (depending on where you live) getting to see the beauty of nature in the way a city dweller never can. Unfortunately for rural water utility operators, some of these benefits don't completely translate to their jobs. If you're the only operator---the only employee---at a rural utility, sometimes independence and hard work end up meaning the operation of the utility is all up to you all the time. Never being able to take a day off or have a vacation can be tiring enough. But you add in some of the weather Mother Nature can produce while she's busy being scenic, and sometimes you end up working nights, weekends, and 24-hour days, trying to keep your friends and neighbors supplied with clean, safe drinking water.

If this sounds familiar, a regional partnership might offer you a little breathing space. Regional partnerships can give you the opportunity to get a nearby operator to cover your utility while you take a vacation or go to town for a doctor's visit. Pooling your resources with other rural utilities can also help you qualify for employer insurance, access tools and resources from neighboring communities, and meet other knowledgeable operators. This 7-minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation shows how a regional partnership helped unincorporated communities known as colonias help each other:

Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority from RCAC on Vimeo.

To see more resources for water utilities from RCAC, check out their Guidebooks.

Featured Video: Rural Missouri Climate Adaptation

Though it may still feel like spring, depending on where you are in the country, summer is just around the corner. And with summer comes the possibility of drought. Is your utility at risk of drought conditions? Do you know what you'd do if a drought visited your community? Occasional but severe weather events can feel hard to plan for, but not planning at all can make the situation worse. In this 2-minute video, a small rural community in Missouri talks about the planning efforts they're taking on to be prepared for drought in the future, after a particularly tough 2012. Interestingly, their plans to combat drought mesh well with their concerns about sediment in their source water supply as well.

If you'd like to learn more about climate adaptation planning for your utility, check out the tools available through the EPA's Climate Resilient Water Utilities portal, and in particular their risk assessment tool.

Featured Video: Community Onsite Options

If you live in a community with a large number of failing septic tanks, you're probably already familiar with the downsides of these systems: the damage to local water quality, the threats to public health. The smell. What you may not know is what you can do about it. Of course, one option is to convert the entire community to a conventional wastewater collection and treatment system. This prevents putting the entire community at the mercy of that one guy who just won't pump or repair his tank, and it ensures that a professional is involved in the wastewater treatment process.

But what if a conventional sewer system is logistically or financially impractical for your community? Are you stuck dealing with smelly, dirty water leaks forever? Thankfully, the answer is no. This 17-minute video discusses the opportunities offered by community onsite management systems. These systems combine the effluent from individual septic tanks into a community-wide leachfield, and often involve mandating activities such as basic maintenance and monitoring. The video includes profiles of five communities (most of them rural) that successfully rehabilitated failing septic systems and combined them into a community onsite management system.

If you're interested in learning more about septic systems and decentralized wastewater systems (which involve community-level septic options), browse our document database using the category Decentralized WW Systems. You can also visit NESC's wastewater page for more on the septic resources they collect and offer.

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