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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.


Brenda Koenig
Brenda Koenig
Brenda Koenig's Blog

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location
Water operator salaries and wages depend largely on where operators live and work, according to statistics released by the US Department of Labor last year. And even when operators live in the same state or region, salaries can vary depending on if the operator works in or close to a major metropolitan area. Certainly according to these statistics, small town water operator salaries are not competing with those offered by larger metropolitan areas. While top salaries can approach the $70K - $90K range at some metropolitan utilities on the West Coast, top salaries in rural or non-metropolitan areas in the same areas are $10K- $20K less. And then there are larger regional differences as well. Top-paying states such as California, Connecticut, Nevada, Washington and Alaska all offer annual mean salaries over $50K while in many southern states (such as Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky) the average salary range is $25K - $40K. If you are interested in finding out where your state ranks, you can click here

Other interesting geographic statistics and trends can be found on this Data USA website and includes the area of the country with the highest concentration of water/wastewater operators (Arkansas!) as well as areas with the highest paying operator jobs. If you are interested in finding out detailed salary information for your specific state, including current and projected employment numbers, concentration data, area profiles and more, check out this informative site

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

Winterizing for Water Utilities

Winterizing for Water Utilities

A few years back, we featured a Winterizing Checklist for Water Utilities from the Indiana Section of the AWWA on this blog. As the weather turns colder once again, it's probably a good idea to review their updated checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this hot-off-the-press article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Preparing for winter weather can be as simple as making sure workers have warm work clothes, but it also means that every precaution should be taken to keep excess ice off your water tower, which can be not so simple at times. And being prepared means taking a look at all aspects of your operation: hydrants, wells/pumping equipment, storage tanks, backflow, emergency preparedness, trucks/backhoes/equipment, worker needs and emergency stock items. 

Wastewater treatment plants have unique winterizing needs. Bacteria critical to the treatment process can slow down, resulting in elevated BOD and COD levels in the effluent. So, keeping bacteria warm and cozy might mean adding additional chemicals or cold weather formulations of hardy cold-resistant bacteria. And did we mention snow? Check out this presentation on how one Maine wastewater treatment plant prepares for winter. They should know! 

Finally, we all know about the neighbors who went away on vacation in the wintertime, only to return to a house with burst water pipes. You can help your community members avoid this and other winter-related mishaps by sharing this video or fact sheet. Stay warm and safe this winter! 

What's That Smell? Eliminating Wastewater Treatment Odors

What's That Smell? Eliminating Wastewater Treatment Odors

With all this talk about public awareness of hidden water system infrastructure, it is important to point out that there are times when public awareness is definitely NOT on your side. And one of those times is when there is a stink that just doesn't go away.

Odors are generated from every phase of wastewater management including collection, treatment, and disposal, and they can cause all sorts of public relations issues, putting pressure on an utility to resolve the problem in a timely way. Certainly, managing odors is one of the most important - and yet most challenging - aspects of wastewater treatment. 

Why so challenging? Because in part there are many odor control technologies available but no single ideal solution. Some systems, like this Brownsville Public Utilities Board plant in Texas, solve odor problems by placing covers over wastewater tanks and channels and then blowing the smelly hydrogen sulfide gas through a biological tower. Others such as this Bridgeport, CN Water Pollution Control Authority plant, capture odorous offgas with coated fabric covers and treat it with a carbon system. Still others use a combination of  different measures, such as activated sludge diffusion, carbon adsorber sytems, pump station chemical feed systems, coverings and plant operation modifications. 

But fixes like these don't come easily, or cheaply. And sometimes, the problem is even more complex. Consider this story of a system in Saline, MI that has been the subject of neighbor complaints for years. Even after odor studies and abatement work, the smell just keeps getting worse. 

How can a smaller system then, with its limited funding and manpower, address odor problems effectively? The cheapest way to control odors is at their source, according to this Science Daily article, but sometimes that is simply not possible. Fortunately, researchers from the University of British Columbia may have recently developed a solution

Many wastewater facilities use anaerobic digestion, but is is expensive to acquire and maintain the associated odor control and biogas safety equipment needed. A much more cost-effective way to mitigate odors, these UBC researchers have discovered, is to revisit metal salts treatment. Simply adding new combinations of these common commercial metal salts during the fermentation process dramatically improves offensive odors, and also improves their ability for remove water from digested sludge. It is these unique doses/formulas and point of addition during the fermentation process that really amplifies the effectiveness of this new approach. Moreover, the cost of adopting their technique is minimal, so smaller systems can afford to test it out. 

In the meantime, if you need a quick primer on odor generation and management, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) has a 7-page factsheet explaining the problem and outlining advantages and disadvantages of various mitigation strategies. 

You can also keep an eye out for odor events right here on WaterOperator.org. For example, this Iowa training later in the month troubleshoots lagoon odor issues. Just type "odor" in the keyword search box on the event calendar page

Want to brainstorm with other wastewater professionals? Attend WEF's Odors and Air Pollutants Conference 2018 in Portland, Oregon in March, 2018. With sessions ranging from "Optimizing Hydrogen Peroxide Dosing" to "Odor Control Scrubber System Planning and Design," there will be many opportunities to learn in-depth solutions to any smelly situation. 

It's Alive! Spooky Sewer Creatures and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant

It's Alive! Spooky Sewer Creatures and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant

Every water system has its stories  whether a particularly forceful water main break or sewage overflow, an unwelcome water tower visitor, or a “worse day ever” inside the treatment plant.

This Halloween season, we thought we would share some of the spookiest water operator videos and news stories we have come across, all with one thing in common: they really happened! (Because we all know that truth is scarier than fiction.)

Let’s start with a quick video and resource about a rare, but certainly not unprecedented, hazard. Hopefully, you will never encounter this slow-moving fleshy blob in your wastewater treatment plant or collection system, but just in case you do, you can thank this blog for warning you!  

No, it isn't an alien from another planet. This nightmare blockage is nothing but a nest of tubifex worms. Along with red worms, blood worms and midge flies, these worms are a normal and occasional nuisance to waterwaster operators, as they can clog filters and eat good bacteria. Although it isn't easy to get rid of them, this website offers hope. 

Speaking of blobs, earlier this year a water utility worker fell off a water main and found himself stuck in a blobby, muddy trench. The more he moved, the more stuck he got. Luckily for him, his nightmare didn't last long  fellow workers quickly came to the rescue, using their knowledge of trenching and excavation safety principles.

One thing is for sure: strange encounters are never far away when you work in the water business. In fact, sometimes spooky creatures are as close as the microscope slides in your lab.

Wastewater plants in particular house microbiological zoos of the strangest kind. But don't worry about what you can't see, because these creepy-crawly microorganisms are really the good guys at treatment plants. The predatory suctoria, for example, uses its spines to suck out the nutrient-rich cytoplasm of organisms it has speared, aiding in breaking down and removing nutrients and organic matter. Or the mysterious Tardigrade (aka water bear) seen below in this video whose appearance usually indicates good BOD degradation. Water bears can survive in outer space, extreme radioactive environments and high temperatures, making them one of the "toughest animals on earth".

In addition to strange creatures, strange happenings can also be part of the day-to-day life of a water operator. This Wessler Engineering blog post entitled "Is Your Wastewater Treatment Plant Haunted? describes an acoustic phenomenon known as "water hammer" that can occur inside the walls of a home as pipe fluids suddenly stop or change direction. This same thing can occur at the treatment plant when automated solenoid valves abruptly open or close, causing a sudden loud boom or knocking. It would be enough to make any night-shift operator jump! 

Finally, we leave you with a story that is sure to give you the shivers. Recent hurricane flooding in Houston has jarred many manhole covers out of place (more than 65, in fact), and somehow a man fell into a pit that feeds underground sewer lines carrying residential wastewater. After over a week underground, the man was finally discovered by utility workers who were nearby making repairs and heard a disembodied voice crying, "I am here, I am here!". After tossing the man snacks from their lunches, rescuers were able to haul the man to the surface. Thankfully this story has a happy ending, but be sure to watch where you are walking this Halloween. 

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

In recent months, there have been dozens of reports of wastewater treatment plants that have flooded due to heavy hurricane rains and storm surges in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and beyond. Both the sheer number of plants affected, and the extent and duration of the flooding have posed significant public health and technical challenges, often stretching communities to their limits

To add to these problems, many rural utilities were already struggling to keep their systems operating before the storms struck, so costly, complicated repairs or replacements of damaged infrastructure is simply not an option. For example, Patton Village, Texas had just completed a new wastewater plant  the first of its kind in their community — before Hurricane Harvey struck. Now they can only hope that USDA/FEMA emergency funding will be available to help repair the damage. And even once the systems are up and running again, it is not a given that water systems can count on water rate income to help with their O&M bills - many residents have fled their flood-damaged homes for good.  

The sad truth is that lately, floods have been affecting wastewater plants with unfortunate regularity, and not just in hurricane-prone areas. For example, in Central Illinois, the small town of Hutsonville's wastewater treatment plant has flooded 3 times in the last 2 years, up from once every 5 years, according to its contract operator Shannon Woodward of Connor & Connor, Inc.

Woodward's first piece of advice is not to build on a floodplain, but he also acknowledges that many communities do not have the capital funds for effective protective measures or relocation, and so operators must deal with the hand they are given. His second piece of advice: "Make sure all electrical controls, switch gears and transformers are above the flood stage. That way, when the flood waters subside, you don't have equipment loss and can get back into operation — even if it takes 3 to 6 weeks for the waters to recede." 

Mason City, another small town in Illinois, was able to fund improvements after a flood in 2008 cut off the town’s water supply and nearly overflowed the capacity of its wastewater system. The following year, the city built a stone wall around the water plant, installed flood sensors on the local river, and built effluent pumping stations for the wastewater plant. 

And this article tells the damage and recovery stories of two flooded wastewater plants in Rhode Island. According to the operators of these plants, it is essential to have a flood plan, even if you think your facility is protected. In addition, they maintain it is important to involve wastewater treatment personnel in emergency response exercises or in the incident command structure. On a practical level, the operators encourage SCADA systems to be elevated on the second floor in the operations building if possible. And lastly, they recommend you back up your files and documents electronically. Papers get wet, they say: move them to a dry storage facility. 

Finally, while every community has different characteristics and needs, there are some universal preparedness strategies for wastewater plants. The US EPA recommends practicing mitigation options as the best way to prevent floodwater from invasively appearing. Some of these options include crafting barriers around key assets, having an emergency back-up generator, and keeping key electrical equipment elevated. You can learn more about these options here, or you can watch this helpful video. In addition, many states have their own guidances, such as this one from Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency.

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. 

Effective Lead Sampling

Effective Lead Sampling

While the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has helped reduce lead in drinking water over the past 25 years, complying with sampling requirements can certainly be challenging! Even when a water system faithfully follows protocols, results can be inconsistent and/or unreliable. While the conditions in which samples are taken, or procedures used, are often out of the hands of water operators, the results of these tests can have significant consequences for their water systems, not to mention the communities involved. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan. 

Last year, in response to these concerns, the EPA released this memo to clarify tap sampling procedures. In addition, in a move towards a rule revision due out soon, the EPA has also recently issued a LCR Revisions White Paper that offers suggestions on how to improve the rule as well as considerations for improving tap sampling. 

In this white paper, the NDWAC Lead and Copper Rule Working Group corroborates what operators have been saying all along:  the LCR sample site selection and sampling process "provides opportunity for error, particularly given that samples are collected by residents themselves."  In addition, the group says the current system provides "opportunities for systems to implement sampling procedures to avoid exceeding the action level..." 

How to fix the problem? The group suggests substituting a voluntary customer-initiated sampling program for the current LCR tap sampling requirements and/or partnering with technology developers to identify and develop real-time monitoring technologies (such as this inexpensive lead monitor), among other things.

All this is well and good, but until this technology becomes available, and/or a more prescriptive sampling guidance or revised rule released, what is a water operator to do? Is there any sampling method that offers the most reliable results in the most efficient way?

This is the topic of a recent AWWA/WRF study entitled “Evaluation of Lead Sampling Strategies”. The study found that the answer to this question does not come easily. In fact, according to the study, "no sampling method was particularly proficient at finding the peak lead level compared to doing a full profile for each sampling event”. In addition, the type of lead found in samples was inconsistent: “even at a specific site, on some occasions the sampling can be particulate dominated and on other dates the lead can be dissolved dominated or some combination,” the report states.

It is no wonder that water operators across the country may welcome further guidance on this rule. In the meantime, Michigan's DEQ offers a couple of helpful resources: these sampling instructions can help water systems assure residents are following proper procedure and this sample site selection criteria factsheet can help systems ensure a large and diverse enough sampling pool. Please note that the use of guidance material from EPA, other states, and third-parties can offer insight and clarification, but should not be considered a substitute for policies and guidance from your primacy agency. 

To get an update on lead issues in the water industry, join this webinar that will be presented by the VA-AWWA in November. 

Finally, be sure to check out this AWWA video featured on our blog earlier this year: Lead and Copper Sampling.

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Coming this October, AWWA will host a webinar entitled Water Sector Black Sky Resilience. A Black Sky event is a long-duration, widespread power outage that could, in turn, cause a whole host of additional catastrophes. 

According to The Electric Infrastructure Security Council, A Black Sky event can have many causes: high magnitude earthquakes, severe space weather, electromagnetic pulses or interferences in the upper atmosphere (the kind that a nuclear detonation might cause), hurricanes, cyber-terrorism, coordinated power grid assaults and more.

Hurricane Harvey has offered a glimpse of the impact a Black Sky event would have on water and wastewater systems and the communities they serve. Black Sky events would cause much longer-term outages than the typical hazard event, and help might not come as quickly, or as easily. Back-up generators might be able to provide a certain amount of power, as long as they are in working order, but what if the treatment chemicals you depend on run out and can't be delivered to you?

Last year, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council issued a 212-page report analyzing water sector disaster scenarios and these types of cascading failures - power losses that lead to water losses and the consequences of those losses. The report concluded that this was an area that needed more analysis and planning. The report also recommends that smaller systems be provided with training as well as assistance in partnering with larger utilities that have more resources. 

Clearly, the effects of a long-term water outage on public health could be devasting, and this is why it is important to incorporate Black Sky response and recovery considerations into disaster management plans. The good news is that if you have a disaster management plan in place, you are already heading in the right direction. Using tools such as this 2016 E-Pro Handbook II (Water), you can expand your plan to include even the most severe emergencies. And this resource form the U.S. Energy Information Administration can keep you updated with live energy disruption reports across the nation. 

The USEPA also has a whole host of tools to help your utility prepare for a Black Sky event including a Power Resilience Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities, a Drinking Water and Wastewater Utility Generator Preparedness guide, and a video entitled "Power to Keep Water Moving" (click below to view). Finally, be sure to check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' EPFAT tool, a secure web-based tool to input and store emergency power assessment data. Using this tool can help USACE provide temporary power faster, getting you the right generator at the right time. 

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