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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

Featured Video: Regional Collaboration for Clean Water in York County

Over 500 communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are working to meet NPDES permit standards for stormwater discharges from their municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s). MS4s that discharge to impaired surface waters or directly to the Bay are required to develop Pollutant Reduction or TMDL Plans. Meeting these requirements while also addressing important local issues such as increased flooding can be a challenge for any municipality, regardless of size. However, Pennsylvania's York County has proven that there is strength in numbers. This video from MOST (Municipal Online Stormwater Training Center, an initiative of the University Of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center) features Felicia Dell, the director of the York County Planning Commission discussing how municipalities in her county banded together in a consortium to attract funding, and then distributed this funding in an equitable way to construct projects that would benefit all. 

Solving the Rural Water Crisis

Solving the Rural Water Crisis
Every fall, Americans from all all walks of life and locations drive through the countryside to enjoy the changing foliage, apple orchards and park-lands, often barely glancing at the small water or wastewater utilities along the roadsides that serve area residents. Yet if they took the effort to speak to the people who are struggling, often at great odds, to provide or clean water in these rural areas, they might begin to understand that even in this country, with all its resources and technological advances, there are many places — just around the bend — where clean water is not a given. In fact, according to this recent article, of the 5,000 drinking water systems that racked up health-based violations in 2015, more than 50 percent were systems that serve 500 people or fewer. 

The challenges of these small rural systems are many: aging infrastructure (add to this a lack of overflow capacity for wastewater systems), water quality issues, comparatively lower water operator wages, increasing man-made and natural disaster hazards such as extreme rain events, stricter health standards, a small pool of paying customers, and, always, a lack of funding. The new infrastructure bill just recently signed by the president is providing some hope for the future (it has a significant catch, though — its authorizations still require yearly appropriations installments), but for now, many communities live in a constant state of worry about their water.

On top of this, many rural communities are dealing with the political and economic pressure to sell their utilities to private companies, if they haven't already done so, a particularly tempting option in times of crisis. According to a recent special series on the rural water crisis from NPR, this "complicated mix of public and private ownership often confounds efforts to mandate improvements or levy penalties, even if customers complain of poor water quality or mismanagement."

But there is hope on the horizon. Certainly increased funding for infrastructure is part of the solution. But according to California water commissioner Maria Herrera in this recent article, more can be done. She suggests that legislation should also increase technical assistance funding and give communities an opportunity to hire consultants to develop shovel-ready projects and fund safe drinking water projects. Also on her wish list: "We need to not only fund mitigation of contaminated wells and treatment plants, but also help communities develop redundant water sources, promote consolidation of small systems to larger ones, and help them with drought contingency planning. Communities need guidance and technical assistance in order to develop solutions and participate in water planning."

In Louisiana, circuit rider Timmy Lemoine says in this article that he is "seeing a shift as small systems allow larger systems with a certified operator take over management." And at the University of Iowa, engineers are testing new wastewater treatment technologies, hoping to defray costs for aging small-town systems. In addition, organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) have a wealth of resources to support rural utilities and help them save money, such as this energy efficiency video. The question remains if solutions such as these will be sufficient to ensure that rural residents can count on clean water now and into the future. 

Featured Video: The Big Empty

Featured Video: The Big Empty

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face significant management and operational issues. O’Brien, Texas is just one of thousands of small communities in the United States that struggle to find the resources to ensure that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. Watch this documentary short produced by Tom Roseberg and Earth Institute fellow Madison Condon that details O'Brien's drinking water crisis. 

Spooky Sewers and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant: 2018 Edition

Spooky Sewers and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant: 2018 Edition
An October chill is in the air, and darkness is falling earlier and earlier. It must be time to share our annual bone-chilling list of some of the wierdest, wackiest and downright most frightening water operator stories we came across this year (check out last year's list here)!
 

First, can you imagine what it would be like to get sucked through a sewer for over a mile? Well, it happened to this man when his safety harness came undone back in 2010. And although he survives, the crappy experience is surely something he will never forget. 

While we are talking collections O&M, here's a video describing one characteristic of a successful wastewater operator: a strong stomach. Another characteristic? Knowing not to "fling this on your partner".  And believe me, you don't want to know what "this" is!

Sometimes, though, what flows into a sewer simply doesn't come out, no matter how much you work on it. That is when you call in the professionals: sewer divers.

This is exactly what the water system in Charleston, SC did when they could not clear an obstruction earlier this month. They sent specialized sewer divers 80-90 feet deep into raw sewage in complete darkness to search for the obstruction with their hands..

What did they find? You guessed it: a large mass of "flushable" wipes. Lucky for us, the water system documented the whole episode on social media, but respectfully shot the pictures in low-res for our benefit.

If you want to dive deeper into the topic of sewer exploration, we double dare you to watch this video about a man who swims through Mexico City's wastewater system on a regular basis to keep it working. 

Other types of obstructions have to be dealt with in other ways. This past summer, utility workers spotted an alligator swimming in the Mineral Springs, PA wastewater treatment plant. A private contractor hired by the state Fish and Boat Commission had to use dead animals as bait to try and snag the gator with a fishing hook. 

You have to admit, wastewater often gets a bad wrap. To prove this, just ask any operator from Baltimore's wastewater treatment plant what happened there back in 2009. That was the year they had to call in experts to deal with a 4-acre spider web that had coated the plant. According to a scientific paper that appeared in American Entomologist, the “silk lay piled on the floor in rope-like clumps as thick as a fire hose” where plant employees had swept aside the webbing to access equipment. Scientists estimate the megaweb contained about 107 million spiders

Finally, it wouldn't be Halloween without ghosts, or ghost water, to be more precise. What is ghost water you ask? Well, pervasive leaks and long repair delays are causing water to disappear in Kansas City, Missouri (a kind of haunting experienced by water systems all across the country it seems). According to this 2017 article, nobody knows exactly where the water is going, but the water department points to faulty meters, theft, aging pipes and abandoned houses. Spooky!


Featured Video: Using Powdered Activated Carbon to Remove Cyanotoxins

Featured Video: Using Powdered Activated Carbon to Remove Cyanotoxins

In May of this year, the city of Salem, Oregon discovered the state's first-ever algae breach in finished drinking water. Since then, there has been quite a bit of soul-searching, as well as a third-party assessment of exactly what happened and the effectiveness of the water utility's response after the event. In the end, the assessment concluded that the city was not prepared to deal with the public relations fallout, or the more practical matter of helping citizens access emergency water supplies. 

In the meantime, the Oregon Health Authority responded by creating almost unprecedented new cyanotoxin monitoring regulations for systems across the state, and the city of Salem was left to figure out how to cope with what may turn out to be a long-standing threat.

As an emergency measure, the utility started using powdered activated carbon (see video below from Statesman Journal reporter Dick Hughes) but it can cause clogging of the filtration plant.  The city is now also looking into ozone filtration, as well as other improvements including hazard response and crisis communication planning in order to be better prepared to handle future events.  

What's New in our Document Library: Fall 2018

What's New in our Document Library: Fall 2018

Every day, staff members at WaterOperator.org search the internet to find events, resources and tools that have the potential to make a water operator's job easier and more effective. Here is a selection of our most recently-entered resources of interest to small system operators. 

Have we missed anything especially helpful recently? Let us know

Biosolids

Cyanobacteria/Harmful Algal Blooms

Emergency Response

Financial Management

Inflow/Infiltration

Non-community Systems

Safety

Sampling/Monitoring

Test-Prep Resources

Wastewater

Water Security

Water Treatment

Featured Video: A Day in the Life of a Water Treatment Plant Operator

Featured Video: A Day in the Life of a Water Treatment Plant Operator
A career in water can provide a great opportunity to earn a good living and make a difference in your community. But what is a water operator job really like? Watch this video from Carmichael Water District in California to find out! Note: This video is shot from a first person POV, and may cause motion sickness.

 

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

On a typical day at the plant, water and wastewater system personnel are challenged to do a lot with a little in the service of protecting and producing water for their community. Certainly one way staff members are demonstrating this resourcefulness has been in their adoption of energy efficient strategies and programs. 

Why is this important? Simply stated, saving energy can help small systems put their scarce resources towards what really matters: safe drinking water and clean wastewater discharge.  

According to Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Best Practices Guide for the Water and Wastewater Industry, additional benefits to water systems include improved control and treatment as well as shorter paybacks compared to other industries on capital costs for energy efficiency improvements. Of course, the amount of energy savings will vary depending on the type of system in use, the age and condition of the equipment/infrastructure and the capital available to implement major changes, if necessary. 

But even if you have little to no capital available to make improvements, energy savings are still very much possible! This resource from the U.S. Department of Energy, and this list from ORACWA, for example, list the many low or no-cost measures plants can take to save energy, and therefore, money. 

But before you start an energy savings programs, the EPA recommends that you conduct an energy audit or assessment of your system. Free tools for doing this can be found on the EPA's Energy Efficiency for Small Drinking Water Systems webpage, or you can view this webinar recording. In addition, the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP) staff across the United States may be able to carry out energy audits for drinking water and wastewater facilities. Find the contact information for your RCAP region at https://rcap.org/contact/.

The next step is to identify the easy targets. RCAP has an article (Five Things You Can Do To Save On Energy in Your Utility) and a video to help you do this. In addition, the EPA has a step-by-step presentation on energy self-sufficiency and the role new technologies can play to help you achieve this. 

Other resources include: 

Finally, here are some energy facts that might just surprise you! 

  • Over 90 percent of energy consumed in producing and delivering drinking water is used for pumping. (Check out this WRF resource on strategies to save $ during the pumping process)
  • 30 to 60 percent of a municipality’s energy budget is spent on the treatment of water and wastewater
  • According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, energy audits typically identify potential savings to the user of 10 to 40 percent, with 20 percent being the average.

Featured Video: What Does it Take to be an Operator?

Featured Video: What Does it Take to be an Operator?
Water and wastewater operators provide critical services to their communities, and yet the work they do often flies under the public's radar. This lack of visibility can make it challenging to attract new talent to the field. At the same time, a shortage of certified operators is expected as older operators retire. 

This workforce shortage can hit rural areas and small systems particularly hard, as they often can't keep up with pay rates offered by larger, urban systems. Recruitment strategies include apprenticeship programs, partnerships with community organizations, programs for veterans, and more, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to attract the right kind of people to the field in the first place.  

This video includes interviews with two operators who talk about how they got into the field and what skills they use in their jobs. This video can be shown to encourage people to enter the field, including high school, college and community college or trade school students. 

If you are interested in learning more, check out this new workforce report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings (funded by the Water Research Foundation) describing the range of water jobs available regionally, the potential pools of labor to fill these jobs, and development strategies to equip workers with needed skills.


Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants

Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants
Last week, a large explosion at a water reclamation facility in Calumet, IL served as a somber reminder of the importance of following safe practices when dealing with methane gas or any flammable material at treatment plants. While no one was killed, there were injuries and some of these were severe.

With this in mind, there is no better time than now to review safety procedures and training practices for working around potentially explosive materials like methane. 

An important first safety step, according to this Spring 2018 article in Missouri WEA's Current Magazine, is to check your facility for gas leaks and accumulations. When doing this, it is better to use a combustible gas meter than to rely on your sense of smell, because an individual's nose can become desensitized to the tell-tale rotten-egg smell over time. In addition, it is essential that workers know how to use monitors properly, and test them regularly.

Other recommendations include the installation of an automatic fan/ventilation system and a permanent gas detection system. 

Finally, as this safety presentation from Suez points out, never perform hot work unless explosion risks have been identified and eliminated. If you need a visual reminder about why this is so important, this video from the US Chemical Society & Hazard Investigation Board (USCSB) lays out the events leading up to a fatal Florida wastewater plant explosion in 2006. 

Gas and chemical hazards are an invisible but unavoidable fact in the operations of a wastewater treatment plant. Get a step ahead of the game by reviewing these tips and following the correct protocol - it's the best way to ensure that you return home safely each workday.