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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

NASA's SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite provides worldwide soil moisture readings every 2-3 days. This data is invaluable to scientists, engineers, and local decision makers alike, improving flood prediction and drought monitoring. To see some of the images it has produced in the past, go 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 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.

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.

Water Loss and Conservation for Small Utilities

Water loss is an unavoidable part of distribution systems, yet too much can stress the supply and efficiency of your utility. The average water loss for systems is estimated at 16 percent, up to 75 percent of which is recoverable. This water may be disappearing due to faulty or aging infrastructure via pipe breaks and leaks, storage overflows, and house connection leaks. It’s also possible the water loss is only apparent, not real, due to errors like unauthorized consumption or inaccurate meters.

Identify your water loss

Your utility can calculate water loss as the difference between system input (the volume of water your utility delivers), and consumption (the volume of water that can be accounted for by legitimate consumption, whether metered or not.) The EPA outlines the following calculations in their overview of water audits and water loss control:

  1. Determine the amount of water added to the system, typically for a one year period,
  2. Determine authorized consumption (billed + unbilled), and
  3. Calculate water losses (water losses = system input – authorized consumption)
    1. Estimate apparent losses (unauthorized consumption  + customer meter inaccuracies + billing errors and adjustments)
    2. Calculate real losses (real losses = water losses – apparent losses)  

For a quick estimate, you can also use the Monthly Water Loss Calculator from the Missouri Rural Water Association. If you aren’t sure of the right numbers to plug into these calculations, your system may need a water audit. Maryland’s Water Supply Program offers guidance on preparing for water audits and linking them to a water loss reduction plan.

Identify your action items

Once your water loss calculations have determined whether you should take conservation actions, you’ll have a host of options to choose from. One of the most comprehensive overviews in our WaterOperator.org library comes from the Florida Rural Water Association, which not only lists options available but grades the water savings, cost effectiveness, and ease of implantation for each. In general, most of your options will fall under:

  • Meter installation, testing and replacement
  • Leak detection and management
  • Pipe repair and replacement
  • Correcting water theft and meter tampering
  • Setting conservation rates, if appropriate

If your utility is functioning well, or if you’re unable to make changes but facing a water shortage, you can also work directly with customers to change their usage habits. We’ve found few compilations of home water conservation tips more extensive than this 100 item list compiled by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.

Evaluate performance

Finally, your utility will want to set benchmarks for the interventions and check back on your calculations periodically to see how the system improves. To find more resources on how to identify and correct water loss, including those specific to your state, be sure to check our document database at wateroperator.org/library

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: Green Infrastructure for Small Rural Communities

Last week, we shared videos for educating your consumers in ways to improve stormwater quality and increase infiltration. But maybe you're interested in these topics as well. In that case, this week's video is for you. This hour-long webinar recording highlights green infrastructure efforts taken on by two small, rural communities. Representatives from the utilities in those communities discuss reasons why they wanted to take on stormwater management, reasons why they chose green infrastructure, the projects and programs they implemented, lessons learned, and project funding. It includes before and after and process images, but is not a highly detailed build guide.

> For public outreach stormwater videos, see last week's blog. For more practical insights into the construction of stormwater management structures, search our document database using the category Stormwater and type Manuals/Handbooks. If you want to narrow it down further, try selecting by your state or a state near you, or type "BMP" (without the quote marks) in the Keyword search filter.

Lessons from the California drought: Planning rates and water conservation can protect utilities from lean times ahead.

By the time California entered its fifth year of historic drought last summer, water utilities across the state were dire straits. Statewide conservation orders had succeeded in many areas at reaching their much-needed target reductions, yet water agencies were struggling to meet their operating costs while facing millions in lost revenue.

Planning ahead can be critical to operating through decreases in demand or water use restrictions like those seen in California, especially with drought predictions ahead for states like Virginia and New Jersey. In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the Metropolitan Council has assembled a suite of programs and practices water suppliers can implement to do just that.

This Water Conservation Toolbox for suppliers deals with the practical need to align rates with revenue, reduce water losses, and develop a water conservation program for your community.

Setting water rate structures that encourage conservation

The Toolbox includes two programs to help utilities set rates that work for water conservation. Learn through videos by the Water Research Foundation, or run calculations for different scenarios through University of North Carolina’s Water Utility Revenue Risk Assessment Tool. The tool allows utilities to calculate how much of revenue is at risk of loss if their customers lower their consumption, providing estimates based on the utility's own rate structure, customer demand profile, and weather conditions.

If you find a rate increase is needed for your utility, see our blog posts on how to lay the groundwork for approval and gaining community buy-in.

Stopping water and energy loss

Programs to audit leaks, recycle and reuse water and reduce energy can all save utilities money during water conservation. The Toolbox provides resources to learn about the close tie between water and energy efficiency at your utility, and how to identify losses. If you see a need for change, the Toolbox can connect you to help like the Water Loss Control Resource Community.

Building a water conservation program

Finally, the Toolbox features a suite of water conservation programs to borrow ideas from. Browse a library of options from rebate and voucher programs to school education from the Alliance for Water Efficiency. And when a change in infrastructure is needed to stop water loss, the U.S. EPA provides a list of resources for financing new water infrastructure in your community.

Getting a head start to avoid disaster

In the height of the California drought in 2016, Water Board chair Feilcia Marcus told the Sacramento Bee that, with the state facing longer, more frequent droughts, local districts need to devise rate structures that take into account prolonged conservation.

“It’s certainly a challenge for some of them, but not one that can’t be overcome,” Marcus said. “The right answer can’t be that we can’t save water in the worst drought in modern history because we haven’t gotten around to changing our rate structures, or because somebody might yell at us.” 

Financial Accounting for Small Systems

This article originally appeared on the SmallWaterSupply.org blog in 2012 as part of the Water We Drink series, developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center. Written by Certified Public Accountant Hatsy Cutshall, its ideas and tips still hold true today.

A cascade of bad economic news since late 2008 has focused nearly every citizen’s concern on finance, certainly at home and often at the public level. Many who are struggling to pay their own bills are looking to municipal leaders and asking valid questions about how their tax money is being spent.

A water or wastewater system is often the single largest asset owned by a small community. Like a homeowner with his property, all the stakeholders of those systems are best served if that asset is well managed and maintained to get the longest and best use at the lowest cost to all concerned. It is imperative that the board and the system managers understand and appreciate the value of the financial aspect of running the system. With that understanding they are then prepared to address public questions and concerns to help them understand how and why many decisions are made.

Financial management is not just about depositing cash in the bank and paying the bills. When used as part of an effective overall management strategy, it helps managers plan for the future to avoid unpleasant surprises like a compliance order or the sudden and unplanned need for significant infrastructure replacement. It also prepares management to explain to the rate-paying constituents how the decisions are made that go into setting the rates that keep the system going.

Without sound financial information, it is easy for the public to make incorrect assumptions about how much it costs to provide safe, reliable drinking water. Often, the first target for public scrutiny is the staffing expense. In response, many small system managers and governing boards are tempted to short change the accounting and finance function in favor of technical staff. By doing so, they risk problems that could cost them far more in the long run than the salary or accounting fees they have opted to avoid.

Furthermore, when a system does face the need for additional investment or maintenance costs, managers will find that there is less money flowing overall, fewer grants, and more loans. Funders are imposing stricter reporting requirements on systems to prove their capacity to manage the money they're borrowing.

There has never been a better time for small systems to take a look at their financial management and make sure it can stand up to this heightened scrutiny. In doing so, they likely will also discover ways that their financial information can help them decide how to make better use of the income and other resources for which they are responsible.

To help system managers and board members form a strategy for improving their financial management, I've compiled some ideas for how to get started. I've had the good fortune to talk with a number of technical assistance providers and other consultants who work with small systems. They've highlighted some common situations that they find when they begin work with a small system, as well as solutions that can help resolve some difficult situations.

Ten Financial Accounting Tips for Water and Wastewater Systems

  1. Get organized! Before you can begin to create or improve a financial system you have to be able to find your expense bills, your receipts records, your bank statements, and your payroll records. Create a filing system and get your paper records in order so that when you need to refer to a document, you can find it easily. If many of your records are in electronic format, create an electronic filing system for those records, as well.
  2. Review and document the system's rules and policies for income, expenses, and setting aside reserves. Read the minutes of board meetings for policies that may need to be formalized into the operating procedures. Board members and management should consider policies for handling late payments, whether to apply for a credit card, and board policy for setting aside a percentage of all fee income for capital needs reserves, to name a few.
  3. Find the right person to do the accounting work. If the system has a staff member who can take on the work and is willing to learn, get him or her some training. If the system cannot afford or does not need even a part-time bookkeeper on staff, consider hiring a local bookkeeping or accounting firm to do this work on a contract basis. Ask if the contractor has staff members who are willing to attend board meetings to help managers and board members read and interpret the reports.
  4. Talk to some trusted and experienced advisors about the system's accounting needs before you buy software. Often small systems buy accounting packages that are far more expensive and complex than they really need. The accounting software must be able to track the water system's activity separate and apart from that of any other government activity. If the system is small enough (e.g. 50 to 100 connections) a simple Excel spreadsheet may be able to handle all the tracking and reporting you need. For larger systems or those that are ready for a more comprehensive solution, QuickBooks is affordable and can handle most, if not all, of the accounting functions that many small systems need.
  5. Build a budget. Start with the actual results of the prior year's operations and consider what is likely to change, as well as what the board and constituents wish to change and put it in writing. Once approved, enter this budget into the reporting system so that reports can compare the actual financial activity to what was expected. Comparing the two will help managers and constituents plan for the future.
  6. Find and file any records you can that show how much was paid for pipe, pumps, meters, and other system infrastructure. Identify what the system owns and adopt an asset management plan. This survey of the system's physical components then informs the financial planning and budgeting process to reduce the risk of unplanned expenditures. This summary of what the system owns and how much it cost will also give you the information you'll need to record the value of the system's fixed assets on the balance sheet as required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) 34 rule, which addresses financial reporting requirements for infrastructure assets.
  7. In addition to training the financial staff or hiring a bookkeeping firm, consider offering training for the system's board. Members of a utility's oversight board are often volunteers and may need assistance in making informed decisions and communicating the reasons for those decisions to the public. This type of training, as well as more generalized financial management training, is often offered through the state's primacy (drinking water or wastewater agency) as well as through non-profit organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).
  8. Make sure your accounting system can track and classify income by type such as fees for water service, hookup fees, late fees, and so forth. It should also provide reports on aged receivables: how much the system is owed and how much is overdue by 30, 60, 90 or more days.
  9. Classify expenses in such a way that a report reader can easily compare how money is being spent to the board's approved budget. Expense line items such as telephone, rent, electricity, salaries, supplies, and other routine costs should be created; as payments are made and entered into the system, those payments should be categorized according to their purpose. The system should also be able to provide a report on how much is owed to outside vendors and when those payments are due. This report is called an "accounts payable aging" report.
  10. Record financial activity in the system regularly and often, at least once per month. If you let bookkeeping work pile up for months at a time, it is very easy to forget information that is important to the financial reports, such as the purpose of an expenditure or to which fund is should be charged. Monthly (or more frequent) reporting also helps managers see problems in time to solve them before they become more expensive to solve.

Make the decision that financial management is as important as maintaining the plant and equipment. Whether you decide to do it to meet regulatory requirements, citizen demand, or management needs, it's a great idea!

For more information or for advice and help getting started, contact your region's RCAP office, the National Rural Water Association, or your state primacy agency that deals with drinking water or wastewater systems.

The author would like to thank the following people for their help and information in preparing this article: H.B Calvert, Karen Yates and Jan Frederick with the Midwest Assistance Program; Mary Fleming and Linda Martinez with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation; Karen Johnson and Cindy Navroli, MPA, CPA.

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.

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