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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

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: 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.

Drought resources for a dry summer

Drought resources for a dry summer

If you live in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or parts of the Southwest, your utility may be facing drought conditions this summer. Recently, we’ve shared resources for setting rates to encourage water conservation, gaining community buy-in through social marketing, and helping customers track their water use through smart metering.

Yet if you’re not sure yet what your utility needs, you can find a start-to-finish planning guide in the EPA’s comprehensive Drought Response and Recovery Guide, which provides worksheets, best practices, videos and key resources for responding to drought. The guide is paired with an interactive map of case studies of small and medium-sized drinking water utilities in the U.S. that have successfully responded to drought. Video interviews of utility managers and officials will walk viewers through how these towns located emergency resources and then built up their long term resilience.

Rural development specialist Dean Downey of RCAC recommends four steps below to developing a water shortage contingency plan.

Step 1: Establish your utility priorities. The EPA and USDA's Rural and Small Systems Guidebook to Sustainable Utility Management lists ten key management areas of sustainably managed utilities.  By addressing priority areas such as product quality, financial viability, operation resiliency, and others, water system managers can address challenges and increase their effectiveness.

Step 2: Identify your potential water shortage events. Drought, water quality degradation, or equipment failure can reduce or eliminate supply. Water treatment or distribution system failure can also cause major water shortage events. Events can be natural, man-made, or due to equipment failure. As utility system personnel you will most likely have the best idea where to focus your limited resources in planning for water shortages.

Step 3: Assess risks. Don’t spend your time on events that probably won’t occur or that will have limited impact on your utility. Assess both the likelihood and impact of a failure to evaluate the risks.

Step 4: Involve other stakeholders. Don’t forget to include other agencies and groups in the process. Utility personnel are prone to believe they can handle just about any incident. This may be true to a certain extent, but usually utilities underestimate available resources and abilities needed to handle larger or more complex water shortage events.

Downey writes that additional steps include, examining water supply and demand, identifying trigger mechanisms for implementing the plan, and ensuring financial and legal backing.

You can view a full list of RCAC materials for drought planning here, including the Action Plan for Emergency Drought Management, a template for water systems serving fewer than 3,300 people to help assess a drought situation and take immediate actions to mitigate its impact on the community.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Search WaterOperator.org’s resource library for more guidance and example plans to keep your utility running smoothly through a dry (or wet!) summer.


Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

While the right amount of spring rain bring a good kick-start to crops and gardens, the wrong amount can overwhelm drinking water and wastewater systems. In the past, we’ve compiled resources on how to prepare for natural hazards, but how can your utility recover if the damage is already done?

If the worst case scenario hits your utility, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be able to provide financial assistance for repairs. FEMA's Public Assistance grants are available to state, tribal and local governments, and certain types of private nonprofit organizations so that communities can quickly respond to major disasters or emergencies. This includes the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged public facilities and those owned by certain private non-profit organizations.

These funds become available when your state declares a state of emergency and, if additional recovery assistance is needed, your governor sends a request letter to the president. If the president then decides to declare a major disaster or emergency, FEMA designates the area eligible for assistance and announces the kinds available. Most recently, President Trump has declared disasters in California and Nevada for damage from severe winter flooding.

In addition to the guidance offered under FEMA’s Frequently Asked Questions page and their complete 2017 Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, the Missouri Rural Water Association has compiled the following ten points that will help ensure your project runs smoothly.

  1. Call your insurance agent, or company, to make sure of your coverage.  FEMA assistance is only there to supplement what insurance doesn't cover.
  2. Pick a person with your system to be the Point of Contact for FEMA/SEMA.  Nothing slows the process down than a large government agency talking with multiple people from one system.
  3. Make sure everything is tracked: working hours, mileage, overtime, volunteer labor, accrued expenses, contractors, etc. When in doubt, count it. You will find standardized forms for Missouri here
  4. After you count it, take a picture of it.  Take pictures of damage, take large-view pictures of your assets that have been damaged, take close up-view pictures of damage, take pictures of your equipment, take pictures of your employees who are working and volunteers that help you work, take pictures of where flood trash is at, take pictures of where you are putting the flood trash, attempt to take before and after photos of everything you see.  Use a cell phone or a camera, but take pictures, and give all of those pictures, with descriptions, to the Point of Contact stated in Item 2 so that person can organize the pictures and have them ready.
  5. It is best to have a policy in place on bidding services and follow that during the event.  Hopefully you will have this in place before the emergency rather than trying to create and follow one during the emergency.
  6. Importantly, keep in touch with your County Emergency Management Director.  This person will be your point of contact for a disaster declaration.
  7. It is encouraged that your system holds an update meeting every day during the recovery to exchange information, pictures, status reports so that everyone is on the same page, especially the Point of Contact person knows they possess the latest information.  You may consider a less frequent meeting after the incident is done but you are still performing paperwork.
  8. Many states will continue to do Preliminary Disaster Assessments (PDA's).  This is done to determine how each county is truly affected and what dollar amounts will be allocated within that county.  The President's declaration makes funds available. That doesn't mean you'll actually get them; it depends on how the funds get allocated.
  9. Your County will hold a meeting where you will fill out paper work to participate in the declaration. Find out from your County Emergency Management Director when this meeting will occur.
  10. And finally, understand that this is not a quick process and one that has to be persistently and patiently followed up on.

 If you have any specific questions about this process it is best to first talk to your County Emergency Management Director.  You may also contact WaterOperator.org’s help line at (866) 522-2681 and our staff will help connect you to the right person.

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.”

Emergency Planning Goes Digital

They call this the age of the internet, so it probably comes as little surprise to hear that there is a whole host of computer and mobile tools designed to make emergency and adaptation planning easier and more effective for utilities and communities.  

We’ve highlighted a few U.S. EPA tools below, but there are many more with a range of features. If you’d like support finding the right tool for your system, drop us a line at 1-866-522-2681 or info@wateroperator.org. And for those who just prefer hardcopy, click here for a list of free emergency response plan templates.  

Tabletop Exercise Tool for Water Systems

This PC-based tool contains materials to assist those interested in planning and facilitating tabletop exercises that focus on water sector-related issues. Fifteen customizable scenarios address natural hazards and man-made incidents and introduce the potential impacts of climate change on the water sector.

Water Utility Response On-The-Go

The homepage of this mobile-friendly website 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. 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. Click here to watch a short video about the site.

Community-Based Water Resiliency Tool

The CBWR Tool is an easy way to find out how prepared your community is to handle emergencies that impact water systems and learn about tools and resources that can be used to build resilience. A summary report is provided after the self-assessment with suggestions and recommended resources for increasing resilience. Users can then navigate to the CBWR toolbox, where they can find the best tool for their needs from over 400 tools and resources. Learn more about the benefits of the CBWR tool in this A Day Without Water video.

Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool

This risk assessment tool allows water utilities to evaluate potential impacts of climate change. The tool guides users through identifying regional climate change threats and designing adaptation plans. After assessment, CREAT provides a series of risk reduction and cost reports to allow you to evaluate various adaptation options as part of long-term planning. Visit the U.S. EPA YouTube channel for a complete introduction and videos showcasing how systems throughout the country have used CREAT to boost their preparedness.

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