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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: Water Exam Success

Featured Video: Water Exam Success
As the new year gets underway, many operators will have certification exams on their mind! Whether you're re-certifying or looking to level up, a little preparation can go a long way. Even if you're great at your job, tests are a different way of processing information, and it doesn't hurt to spend some time reviewing what you know. Some of you may already have surefire strategies for exam review, but even the best students can often pick up useful tips from each other. If you've ever wanted an experienced fellow operator to offer you exam prep advice, this week's featured video is for you.

In this 15-minute video, certified operator Ty Whitman (also known as the Water Sifu) offers tips on scheduling, choosing topics to review, study materials, and strategies for test day.



For more certification prep resources, visit our document database and search by the category Certification/Exam Prep. Try narrowing it by your state, or search by "distribution", "drinking water treatment", "wastewater", or "collection system" depending on the kind of exam you're preparing for. (Search without the quote marks though, because they confuse our database!)

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). 

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: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative

Featured Video: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative
These past few weeks, our featured videos have highlighted the infrastructure needs and challenges of water utilities from several different angles: kids' PSAs, rural utilities' infrastructure improvement projects, and operational know-how for utility administrators. But maybe your community is past all that. Your community  knows what your needs are. You've studied what other utilities in similar situations have done. Your utility's leaders all have a good grasp of what the problem is and how to fix it. What comes next?

There are a couple of different answers to that question, depending on your specific circumstances and the place where you live. You might need to contact a technical assistance provider or an engineer. You might need to apply for a grant. Depending on where you live, you may also benefit from joining a regional partnership. In Alaska, some rural communities have joined the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC), which helps streamline and standardize billing and assists with infrastructure improvements. This week's video features brief interviews with communities that have benefited from this partnership. (Please note that the first 8 seconds of this video are a black screen. The video will begin after this brief pause.)

 

For more on regional partnerships, see our featured video on a regional partnership in the Southwest.

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.

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: Wastewater Treatment Series

Featured Video: Wastewater Treatment Series
If you've worked in administration at a wastewater utility, you probably know the whole process is a lot more complicated than some might think. Even the process of getting the waste from the houses in the community to the treatment center requires vigilance. And then the steps of the treatment process start to pile up. Preliminary, primary, secondary, and then there's sludge and effluent and different ways of handling those. Whether you're the mayor, on the board of directors, answering phones in the office, or cutting the checks, you've probably had to deal with different stage of this process over the course of your job.

If that's the case, here's a chance to brush up on the details of wastewater treatment without getting overwhelmed by technical language. In this week's video series, knowledgeable staffers from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) explain the technical steps of wastewater in layman's terms. These videos are intended to help leaders, board members, and other administrative staff understand what's going on in the operation of their utility. This understanding can help you understand how to make wise operational, maintenance, and expansion decisions that take the realities of utility operation into account. The introduction video is embedded below; each of the following videos can be viewed by clicking on the titles below.

Wastewater Treatment - Introduction from RCAP on Vimeo.

  1. Wastewater Treatment - Collection System
  2. Wastewater Treatment - Preliminary Treatment
  3. Wastewater Treatment - Primary Treatment
  4. Wastewater Treatment - Secondary Treatment
  5. Wastewater Treatment - Solids and Sludge Handling
  6. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disinfection
  7. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disposal

For more on wastewater treatment for non-operators, see RCAP's A Drop of Knowledge handbook for wastewater systems. (There's one for drinking water systems too!)

Pipe Wars

Pipe Wars
Did you know there's a battle going on under our feet? A recent New York Times article unearths the lobbying war between two powerful industries, plastic and iron, over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.

To be sure, pipe material selection can be a complex process. Piping material choices can be influenced by a whole host of factors such as geography, soil characteristics, flow capacity needed, system pressures and more. Some utilities use a single type of piping, while others may use a wide variety depending on specific sites and needs. Moreover, municipal and utility leaders must then navigate through budget constraints and marketing hype as manufacturers fight for a piece of the infrastructure pie.

It is no wonder that operators may need more information before making piping decisions. This webinar video from the Water Research Foundation about the State of the Science of Plastic Pipe provides case studies of how different utilities choose piping materials. The researchers involved in this report found that one of the most important considerations when choosing piping material is overall life cycle cost. 

Don't forget that there may be unique considerations to include in the decision-making process. For example, last month Bruce Macler from USEPA Region 9 wrote to us to let us know that "an interesting outcome of the recent California wildfires was that plastic water & sewer lines melted in some areas."  Who would have thought?

Interested in a no-nonsense listing of pros and cons of available piping materials? Check out this article.

Featured Video: Liquid Assets

Featured Video: Liquid Assets
Even if you're not into New Years' resolutions, the turn of the year can be a great time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. Though I don't really make New Years' resolutions, I do like to take this time to think about my goals and strategies for achieving them. Then instead of testing my willpower against a resolution, I can focus on taking a small step toward a goal or even just thanking the people who have helped me along the way. And while this is a great time for personal reflection, organizations can benefit from asking these questions as well.

A lot of questions facing water utilities are raised in this week's video. It covers a surprising number of topics in just 27 minutes, including crumbling underground infrastructure, the political factors that keep water rates too low to cover needed repairs, and the experiences of small, rural Minnesota communities grappling with infrastructure and sourcewater protection issues. Each issue is presented briefly but thoughtfully, with plenty of input from the local politicians and city officials who had to deal with these problems directly. Though the video was originally created for a PBS station in Minnesota, both drinking water and wastewater utilities from around the country will find a lot to agree with and consider for their own utilities.



For more on rate-setting for small utilities, check out the RCAP handbook Formulate Great Rates and the EFCN rate dashboards.

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer
A recent New York Times article reports that the EPA’s revised rule on arsenic contamination in public drinking water systems has resulted in fewer lung, bladder and skin cancers. This finding, published last month in Lancet Public Health journal, is the result of a study that compared the urinary arsenic levels of over 14,000 people in 2003, before the new rule went into effect, to those in 2014, well after the rule had been fully implemented. The researchers found a 17 percent reduction in arsenic levels in this time period and they estimate that this reduction has resulted in 200-900 fewer lung and bladder cancers and 50 few skin cancers annually.

This finding is reassuring to water systems that have spent time, money and effort on arsenic rule compliance – it is always good to know that regulations are truly making a difference in the lives of community members.

It also highlights the importance of water systems, and especially those with groundwater sources, working with their local and state officials to determine the best way to test for arsenic and, if necessary, treat their water supply.  And because two water systems with similar levels of arsenic in their source water often need two entirely different types of treatment technology, and because these technologies can be expensive, knowledge about arsenic compliance, treatment and funding sources is essential.

Luckily, WaterOperator.org can help point you in the right direction when you choose "arsenic" as the category in our document database. A good first stop is also this EPA webpage which offers lots of resources and tools to operators, such as a rule summary and steps to take towards compliance.

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