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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

The Importance of Customer Outreach

The Importance of Customer Outreach
The more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with community and water leaders, a new study finds. In fact, constituents who received water‐related information from utility mailings or served on committees and boards had perceptions that were more aligned with leaders' concerns. This is why cutting outreach could be a big mistake for utilities of all sizes. 

Another study finding is that there is a real disconnect between the concerns of customers and that of water providers. Residents showed most concern about potential water shortages and high water bills, while their leaders were most concerned about deteriorating local water infrastructure. This was the case no matter where cities were located or what their water source was. 

From their end, residents have a good reason to be concerned about their water rates. The labor department has released findings that show water rates have increased 5.5% on average each year over the past decade, three times faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, water utilities are feeling the squeeze while trying to provide high quality water with aging or inadequate infrastructure. 

This disconnect is why it is crucial for utilities to talk to, and listen to, their ratepayers. Giving the public a voice in major decisions and communicating critical issues results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable. And that is good news for everyone. 

Interested in outreach resources? Type in "outreach" in our document database on WaterOperator.org or you can check out this recent listing.

Study Investigates Water Affordability

Study Investigates Water Affordability
A recent National Science Foundation study on water affordability found that roughly 13.8 million U.S. households could not afford to pay their water bill in 2014. The study found that while access to water has remained relatively affordable until recently, water rates have increased around 41 percent in just the past seven years. Should the rate hikes continue at this pace, according to the report, more than one-third of all U.S. households—35.6 percent—will be unable to afford running water by 2022.

One American city, Philadelphia, has taken measures to address this challenge through a new program—the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). Enrollees' monthly water bills are not based on consumption but rather set as a percentage of  household income and size. Eligible households are provided with water conservation education along with free leak detection tests and low-flow plumbing fixtures. 

Using data collected from income-based gas & electric utility programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado, consultants are predicting that Philadelphia's water department will see a net gain in revenue as a result of lowering the rates and increasing compliance. Perhaps this new approach can be a model for others to follow in addressing a widening water affordability gap.

Interested in assessing affordability at your utility? Here is an easy-to-use Excel tool courtesy of UNC Environmental Finance Center to assess the relative affordability of water & wastewater rates using multiple metrics. Interested in learning more about customer assistance programs (CAPs), how to fund them, legal hurdles and their expanding importance? Listen to this podcast featuring Stacey Isaac Berahzer from The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (EFC). 

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?
The challenges of operating and maintaining a small system water treatment plant can be overwhelming, especially these days, but it is always good to know that your efforts are paying off - and not only because your system is meeting compliance. There is another important contribution you are making to the community as well: the water you help provide can actually make people happy.

How can we tell? According a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, drinking water has a significant impact on our mood. The researchers found that not drinking enough water was associated with negative mood, including fatigue and confusion, compared to those who drank enough water. 

But is isn't just the quantity that matters - the quality is important as well. Recently, author Dan Buettner teamed up with Gallup’s social scientists to develop an index that assesses measurable expressions of happiness and identifies where Americans are living their best lives. The results of this index are the subject of Buettner's new book, The Blue Zones of HappinessAmong the surprises Buettner turned up while conducting his research: “There’s a strong correlation between quality of water and happiness." 

In fact, according to OECD Better Life Index, water quality satisfaction leads to higher overall sense of well-being. The United States, for example, does fairly well in terms of water quality, as 84% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, higher than the OECD country average measurement of 81%. And this important measure seems to be shared by all high scoring nations. Cheers! 

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.

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Much has been said about shining a light on the value of clean water and the hidden infrastructure and personnel involved. In the past decade or so dozens of documentary films about water have been produced that do exactly that. From films that expose the aged and decaying pipes under our feet to films that reveal more complex and difficult truths about who is responsible for this decay, documentary filmmakers can bring big water issues, and the controversies and emotions that come with them, into the spotlight. 

Take for example the recent documentary Troubled Water, a film that highlights water contamination and public health issues in America. Watching the film, and seeing, sometimes for the first time, that many communities do not have access to safe drinking water can hit hard on the public's emotions. They might wonder about the lack of access to safe drinking water or about why there are so many toxins and, especially, they might wonder what people plan to do, and when, to fix the problems. 

Or this film about plastic microfibers showing up in tap water. Samples taken from Asia to Europe to the Americas, the video maintains, demonstrate that 80% of the world's tap water contain these fibers. Scientists interviewed in the film, while agreeing that more research is necessary, believe that chemicals bound to these fibers could be toxic to humans. With plastic surrounding us everywhere we look, the public can feel like there is no escape! 

With their dramatic soundtracks and interviews, these documentaries can certainly get people mobilized to push for meaningful change. Yet they can also erode trust and authentic communication between the community, local governments and their water utilities, especially if the concerns are based on incomplete knowledge.

The trick perhaps is to first acknowledge that any kind of public water awareness, no matter how it comes about, is essentially a good thing. Indeed, according to this EPA fact sheet on communicating with customers about contamination, every contact with the public provides an opportunity to build up public trust, develop closer ties, explain your utility's commitment to delivering safe water, prepare the public for future communication and gain support for investment in their water system.

At the same time it is important to know that whether or not these films play a significant role in public perception, results from recent polls show that Americans are increasingly becoming more concerned about water quality issues. Many utility personnel field water quality concerns from their customers on a daily basis already, so being prepared with good information and a positive attitude can go a long way in staying calm through a public relations storm, or just as inquiries increase over time. The AWWA has a helpful toolkit for talking honestly and openly with your community about difficult issues such as lead contamination.  

In the meantime, you can get ahead of the game by anticipating questions that your customers might have about their water, where it comes from, and who is in charge. Here is a list of recent water documentaries (with links for watching if available) that may be weighing on your customers minds lately. 

  • Water & Power: A California Heist This films explores competing interests in California's groundwater reserves and the privatization of water.
  • Troubled Water This film investigates drinking water contamination in communities across the country.
  • Liquid Assets This film tells the story of our water infrastructure
  • Tapped This film examines the role of the bottled water industry and its effects on our health, climate change, pollution, and our reliance on oil.
  • The Water Front This film explores issues of affordability and changing neighborhoods, as well as the strengths and limitations of community activism.
  • Flow This film asks the question: Can anyone really own water? 
  • Nova: Poisoned Water  This NOVA series uncovers the science behind corrosion control and lead in pipes.
  • Parched This National Georgraphic water series treats a variety of topics including affordability, lead in pipes, PFAs/C-8 contamination, rooftop water tanks and more.
  • Beyond the Mirage This film focuses on drought, growth and the future of water in the West.
  • Written on Water This film shows innovators in Olton, Texas who fight to keep their town alive against the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

Finally, it is hard to not get overwhelmed by the sense of despair that such documentaries can sometimes produce. However, this documentary produced in 2011 by the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water takes a more positive spin on how states and towns can tackle water quality challenges a little bit at a time to add up to significant improvements for all. 

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.

Featured Videos: Put Water First

Summer is a time when water sources are on a lot of customers' minds. Whether they're buying bottled water from the store or making sun tea with water from the tap, chances are the value of drinking water is particularly clear to them. If you'd like to advocate for the value of your drinking water utility, this week's featured video could help.

Heather Himmelberger, director of the Southwest Environmental Finance Center, gave this talk a few years ago at TEDxABQ. TEDx events are independently organized TED-like conferences intended to help communities spark conversation and connection. Heather speaks about the incredibly reasonable price of tap water, and discusses the expenses that could face the industry in the future. The video can provide an accessible introduction to these topics for your customers.


To see more on the topic of the value of water, check out the Value of Water category here on this blog. Or type "value of water" (minus the quote marks) into the keyword search field of our document database, then click Retrieve Documents.

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.” 

Featured Video: The EFC Water and Wastewater Rate Dashboards

The new year may be a time for considering budgets as well as operational challenges. But for small water utilities in particular, setting rates and managing budgets involves a complex set of social and financial issues that can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are resources out there that can help. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of free, interactive Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards. According to the project website, these dashboards are "designed to assist utility managers and local officials to compare and analyze water and wastewater rates against multiple characteristics, including utility finances, system characteristics, customer base socioeconomic conditions, geography, and history." To learn more about how the dashboard works, you can watch their nine-part video series, beginning with the video below:

Dashboards are currently available for twelve states. (For the most up-to-date versions of these dashboards, and to check if new states have been added, use the map at the project page.)

Even if your state is not on the list of current dashboards, it may still be interesting to check out what communities similar to yours are doing around the country. If you'd like more help working on rates and budgeting at your utility, the Rural Community Assistance Program provides technical assistance to small, rural utilities in need of both operational and administrative support. They also have a number of helpful guides aimed at supporting board members of small utilities, including this one dedicated specifically to rate-setting.

Utility finances can be difficult and complicated, but they don't have to be impossible. Find out which assistance providers near you can help you determine what's most realistic and sustainable for your utility.

Educate Decision Makers With Help From RCAP

Google “drinking water” or “wastewater,” and you’re sure to find a growing list of news articles about lead safety concerns, the recent PFOA and PFOS advisory, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and our crumbling infrastructure. The weight and fervor of these public discussions may concern some who grapple to protect our drinking water and environment. But increased attention has its benefits. It could mean your board members and other community decision makers would be more receptive to learning about your operations and operational needs. And that’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Last year, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership released two video series designed to help leaders in small, rural communities make more informed decisions about drinking water and wastewater operations, maintenance, and expansion. Each video spends roughly 2-4 minutes walking the audience through a different technical step in the drinking water or wastewater treatment process. Click on the links below to watch the videos.

Wastewater Treatment

  1. Introduction
  2. Collection system
  3. Preliminary treatment
  4. Primary treatment
  5. Secondary treatment
  6. Solids and sludge handling
  7. Effluent disinfection
  8. Effluent disposal

Drinking Water Systems

  1. Introduction
  2. Raw water intake
  3. Pre-settlement and pre-treatment
  4. Static mixers and flash chambers
  5. Sedimentation and filtration
  6. Distribution systems

Beyond these series, sharing the RCAP video The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water System with your governing body will provide insight into the day-to-day work of an operator and the importance of that role.  

Click here to browse these videos in a playlist.

To find more videos from RCAP and other technical assistance providers, visit our Documents Database and click Videos in the Type category. And subscribe to the WaterOperator.org newsletter to get featured videos and other resources sent straight to your inbox.  

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