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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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.  

Engaging Customers in a Digital World

Like most Americans, your customers probably spend half their day staring at screen—checking emails, commenting on Facebook profiles, scrolling through Twitter feeds. In fact, the Council for Research Excellence recently announced the results of a media study that revealed that 68 percent of us use at least two media platforms—tv, computer, smartphone, audio, print, tablet—at the same time in an average day.

Here’s the take away: joining or becoming more active on social media platforms means meeting customers where they already go to receive information and news.

But, like most things, doing well on social media is much easier said than done. Today we’re sharing a few overarching tips and tricks, but finding the right platform and devising a successful media strategy may require more detailed discussions and a bit of trial and error.

Fortunately, Small Communities #TalkAboutWater is a great place to have these conversations with others who understand the unique challenges faced by small systems. You can also reach out to us directly at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

  1. Define your goals and audience. Are you looking for greater community engagement? Are you in need of easier, more direct ways to share public notices? Maybe you want to connect with local and state officials. The more specific your goals and audience are, the easier it will be to choose the right social media platform and measure success.
  2. Remember not all platforms are created equally. If your system doesn’t frequently generate new pictures, graphics, or videos, Pinterest and Instagram are likely not for you. If you want to share more detailed messages—perhaps about road closures due to pipeline repairs or tips for conserving water—Facebook may be a better choice than Twitter. This article from The Next Web has more information about the pros and cons of different platforms.
  3. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Time and personnel are precious commodities for small systems. Having a smart social media strategy is worth the time, but don’t feel like you need to join multiple platforms at once or post hourly. Consider starting with a single platform and a more conservative media strategy. The key is sustainability.
  4. Make use of your existing network. Invite customers to follow and like your page(s) in your next newsletter or with a bill insert. Put links to your social media pages on your website. Encourage your existing followers to tell their friends.
  5. Prioritize customer service. For many people, an organization Facebook or Twitter page is their first stop when they have questions or concerns. Stay on top of customer issues by responding within 12 hours. And be sure to re-share favorable experiences posted by customers across your social channels.
  6. Start conversations. It’s called “social media” for a reason. The most successful users ask questions that engage followers and inspire them to weigh in on topics they care about. For example, ask customers to share their favorite water conservation practice.
  7. Share your expertise. Customers see water systems as reputable sources for information on water supply and quality issues. Share little-known facts, post links to important information, provide access to reports or relevant research.  
  8. Get personal. Social media is a place for genuine engagement. A lot of the communication water systems have with rate payers is prescribed—public notices, bills, etc. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show the personal side of your operations. Talk about what you’re excited about, highlight staff successes, wish people a happy Friday.

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.

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