rss

WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination
In the weeks following the Santa Rosa, CA wildfires last October, city officials found elevated levels of benzene in water system samples taken from the nearly totally-razed Fountaingrove neighborhood. The first round of samples returned 4 results of over 500 parts per billion, with one of these at 918 parts per billion (MCL for benzene in drinking water is 1 part per billion). A second round of testing produced similar numbers over the MCL, without the higher spikes. A total of 145 samples have now shown elevated levels. 

According to this article in The Press Democrat, city officials, who for months have stressed that the contamination appeared isolated to the advisory area, were taken by surprise that six of those results were from outside the existing advisory area. 

With the help of a forensic chemist, who helped eliminate the possibility of petroleum leaks, the city now suspects that the most likely cause of contamination is heat damage to high-density polyethylene service lines or other plastic components (such as PVC) in the water or wastewater system. The city is enacting more extensive testing to find out if plastic laterals are responsible. Once the exact cause is identified, the city will consider solutions. Replacing the water system could cost over $20 million. 

Interested in finding out more about benzene contamination in drinking water supplies, including sampling methods, treatment strategies, and private well concerns? Check out this EPA website or this Oregon Health Authority factsheet. Another useful resource is this template (from North Carolina) to be used when high levels of Benzene need to be reported to the public . 

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Every season has its challenges for public works departments, and now that spring is just around the corner, it is pretty obvious that this past winter came with more than its fair share. Yet we are not in the clear quite yet, as this news story about two manhole explosions just a few weeks ago demonstrates. In fact, as winter winds down, accumulated road salt compounds corrode through underground electrical cables, causing sparks to ignite gases that can build up in confined spaces. With over 2,000 annual incidents in New York City alone, exploding manholes are not a joke: they can be dangerous, destructive and downright difficult to predict.

And while large cities like New York City are especially prone to these incidents due to aging infrastructure and the sheer amount of underground electrical cables present, small towns are definitely not immune. For example, in 2014 the tiny town of Sauget, Illinois (pop. 150) experienced an explosion so powerful manhold covers damaged overhead power lines.  

 Find out more about how road salt compounds contribute to this problem in this week's featured video.  

While explosions are the most dramatic hazard associated with manholes, research suggests that manholes are in general one of the most dangerous work locations for water system staff. In fact, according to AFSCME, fully one-third of all injuries/deaths of workers occur in or around manholes. Check out this safety presentation hosted by Michigan WEA for more information on the types of hazards presented by manholes and how to protect yourself from them. 

And if you have any lingering doubts about the force, and destructive power, of an expoding manhole, take a look at this video

Responding to Cold Weather Main Breaks

Recent extreme cold weather has affected a large numbers of private and public water lines across the country, resulting in low pressure, main breaks and water service disruptions, including this one at New York's JFK airport.  During the cold snap over the 2018 New Year's holiday, the St. Louis region alone had to deal with 60 breaks per day, with more than 40 crews out at a time. 

Responding to these events, both the dramatic and the more "invisible" ones, can be particularly challenging and can put utility staff at risk. Here are some resources that can help when frigid weather causes trouble: 

  • USEPA's Extreme Cold and Winter Storms Incident Action Checklist
  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Intro to Small System Systems chapter section on methods for thawing out frozen water lines (p. 181).
  • Of course, prevention is the best cure, so here is Indiana AWWA's updated winterizing checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town the next time around. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Need a good public education tool to explain the water main break repair process to the general public? Check out this video from the city of Midland, Michigan showing how water distribution crews handle main breaks during the cold winter months. And here is another example from the city of Arlington, VA.

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.

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

2017 was a great year for the WaterOperator.org newsletter team. We not only reached our 200th edition milestone this past fall, but we also were successful in connecting a significant number of water professionals with useful and relevant resources, resources that could be used on-the-spot to solve pressing issues, or help guide utility best practices, or help water decision-makers plan ahead for their communities. 

While many of the events, articles and resources featured in our newsletters garnered interest, here is a list of our most clicked-on resources of 2017.

Did you use one these resources at your utility this year? If so, we'd love to hear from you! Do you have a favorite "go-to" resource to share? Again, we'd love to know! Our email is info@wateropertor.org , or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter

Featured Videos: Preparing Your System for Disasters & Emergencies

Featured Videos: Preparing Your System for Disasters & Emergencies
Boo! Halloween may be the season for spooky ghosts and spine-tingling stories, but water utility professionals have their own scary stories. A lot of them involve being knee-deep in mud at 2 AM, and most of them end (or begin) with boil orders. This week's video discusses various emergency and water security challenges that could face a utility, and offers practical suggestions to prevent or mitigate them. Your next B-movie night might not feature burst methane or chlorine tanks or vandalism by local teenagers---but maybe it could! This video is one step toward making sure your story has a happy ending. (Though the video is aimed at wastewater utilities, much of it will be relevant to drinking water utilities as well.)

Preparing Your Wastewater System for Disasters and Emergencies from RCAP on Vimeo.

For more on community water resiliency, see the USEPA's CBWR tool that we highlighted earlier this month. For more information on water security specifically, see the USEPA's Water Security Handbook.

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.