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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.


Deborah Seiler
Deborah Seiler
Deborah Seiler's Blog

Raise your profile with AWWA’s Drinking Water Week

Raise your profile with AWWA’s Drinking Water Week

This week marks the American Water Works Association’s drinking water awareness week, and they are offering a suite of free materials for water operators and utilities to raise you profile in your local communities.

“This year’s Drinking Water Week will motivate water consumers to be actively aware of how they personally connect with water,” said AWWA Chief Executive Officer David LaFrance. “We should all know how to find and fix leaks, care for our home’s pipes and support our utility’s investment in water infrastructure.”

The materials – which include artwork, public service announcements, press and social media posts and more – provide an introduction four key steps AWWA is highlighting for water users this year:

  • Drinking Water Week Introduction – AWWA encourages getting to know and love tap water.
  • Get the Lead Out – Replace lead-based water pipes and plumbing.
  • Check and Fix Leaks – Conserve water by checking and fixing leaks inside and outside the home.
  • Caring For Pipes – Stop clogs before they happen by learning more about what can and can’t be flushed.
  • Water Infrastructure Investment – Protect your water supply by advocating for investment in the repair and replacement of infrastructure.

Help celebrate the rest of Drinking Water Week, and bookmark their materials for the next time your program wants to promote these issues.

Drought resources for a dry summer

Drought resources for a dry summer

If you live in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or parts of the Southwest, your utility may be facing drought conditions this summer. Recently, we’ve shared resources for setting rates to encourage water conservation, gaining community buy-in through social marketing, and helping customers track their water use through smart metering.

Yet if you’re not sure yet what your utility needs, you can find a start-to-finish planning guide in the EPA’s comprehensive Drought Response and Recovery Guide, which provides worksheets, best practices, videos and key resources for responding to drought. The guide is paired with an interactive map of case studies of small and medium-sized drinking water utilities in the U.S. that have successfully responded to drought. Video interviews of utility managers and officials will walk viewers through how these towns located emergency resources and then built up their long term resilience.

Rural development specialist Dean Downey of RCAC recommends four steps below to developing a water shortage contingency plan.

Step 1: Establish your utility priorities. The EPA and USDA's Rural and Small Systems Guidebook to Sustainable Utility Management lists ten key management areas of sustainably managed utilities.  By addressing priority areas such as product quality, financial viability, operation resiliency, and others, water system managers can address challenges and increase their effectiveness.

Step 2: Identify your potential water shortage events. Drought, water quality degradation, or equipment failure can reduce or eliminate supply. Water treatment or distribution system failure can also cause major water shortage events. Events can be natural, man-made, or due to equipment failure. As utility system personnel you will most likely have the best idea where to focus your limited resources in planning for water shortages.

Step 3: Assess risks. Don’t spend your time on events that probably won’t occur or that will have limited impact on your utility. Assess both the likelihood and impact of a failure to evaluate the risks.

Step 4: Involve other stakeholders. Don’t forget to include other agencies and groups in the process. Utility personnel are prone to believe they can handle just about any incident. This may be true to a certain extent, but usually utilities underestimate available resources and abilities needed to handle larger or more complex water shortage events.

Downey writes that additional steps include, examining water supply and demand, identifying trigger mechanisms for implementing the plan, and ensuring financial and legal backing.

You can view a full list of RCAC materials for drought planning here, including the Action Plan for Emergency Drought Management, a template for water systems serving fewer than 3,300 people to help assess a drought situation and take immediate actions to mitigate its impact on the community.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Search WaterOperator.org’s resource library for more guidance and example plans to keep your utility running smoothly through a dry (or wet!) summer.


Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

While the right amount of spring rain bring a good kick-start to crops and gardens, the wrong amount can overwhelm drinking water and wastewater systems. In the past, we’ve compiled resources on how to prepare for natural hazards, but how can your utility recover if the damage is already done?

If the worst case scenario hits your utility, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be able to provide financial assistance for repairs. FEMA's Public Assistance grants are available to state, tribal and local governments, and certain types of private nonprofit organizations so that communities can quickly respond to major disasters or emergencies. This includes the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged public facilities and those owned by certain private non-profit organizations.

These funds become available when your state declares a state of emergency and, if additional recovery assistance is needed, your governor sends a request letter to the president. If the president then decides to declare a major disaster or emergency, FEMA designates the area eligible for assistance and announces the kinds available. Most recently, President Trump has declared disasters in California and Nevada for damage from severe winter flooding.

In addition to the guidance offered under FEMA’s Frequently Asked Questions page and their complete 2017 Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, the Missouri Rural Water Association has compiled the following ten points that will help ensure your project runs smoothly.

  1. Call your insurance agent, or company, to make sure of your coverage.  FEMA assistance is only there to supplement what insurance doesn't cover.
  2. Pick a person with your system to be the Point of Contact for FEMA/SEMA.  Nothing slows the process down than a large government agency talking with multiple people from one system.
  3. Make sure everything is tracked: working hours, mileage, overtime, volunteer labor, accrued expenses, contractors, etc. When in doubt, count it. You will find standardized forms for Missouri here
  4. After you count it, take a picture of it.  Take pictures of damage, take large-view pictures of your assets that have been damaged, take close up-view pictures of damage, take pictures of your equipment, take pictures of your employees who are working and volunteers that help you work, take pictures of where flood trash is at, take pictures of where you are putting the flood trash, attempt to take before and after photos of everything you see.  Use a cell phone or a camera, but take pictures, and give all of those pictures, with descriptions, to the Point of Contact stated in Item 2 so that person can organize the pictures and have them ready.
  5. It is best to have a policy in place on bidding services and follow that during the event.  Hopefully you will have this in place before the emergency rather than trying to create and follow one during the emergency.
  6. Importantly, keep in touch with your County Emergency Management Director.  This person will be your point of contact for a disaster declaration.
  7. It is encouraged that your system holds an update meeting every day during the recovery to exchange information, pictures, status reports so that everyone is on the same page, especially the Point of Contact person knows they possess the latest information.  You may consider a less frequent meeting after the incident is done but you are still performing paperwork.
  8. Many states will continue to do Preliminary Disaster Assessments (PDA's).  This is done to determine how each county is truly affected and what dollar amounts will be allocated within that county.  The President's declaration makes funds available. That doesn't mean you'll actually get them; it depends on how the funds get allocated.
  9. Your County will hold a meeting where you will fill out paper work to participate in the declaration. Find out from your County Emergency Management Director when this meeting will occur.
  10. And finally, understand that this is not a quick process and one that has to be persistently and patiently followed up on.

 If you have any specific questions about this process it is best to first talk to your County Emergency Management Director.  You may also contact WaterOperator.org’s help line at (866) 522-2681 and our staff will help connect you to the right person.

Cellular Metering for Small Systems

Cellular Metering for Small Systems

Guest post from Brenda Koenig, Illinois State Water Survey.

Cellular-enabled water meters – also called smart meters – can make all the benefits of smart grid technology attainable for even for small systems on a budget. In this post, we’ll review the pros and cons of cellular vs. traditional metering systems.

Cellular meters offer service benefits

Due to their independence from physical infrastructure, a cellular system is better equipped to continue working through emergencies, such as floods, that might damage a large physical network. Cellular networks also make it easier to service dispersed or geographically diverse areas.

One of their greatest benefits is the speed of data. Cellular meters allow utility managers and customers to monitor their activity in real-time on the web. This improves leak detection and provides more opportunities for water conservation.

Weighing the costs

Cellular meters have potential to save utilities money on some fronts. Their use of cloud-based advanced metering analytic (AMA) software eliminates the need for expensive software installations at the plant. They also eliminate the need for a physical network of antennas, repeaters, wiring installations, and data collection units. Without the need for physical site visits to read traditional meters, utilities may also save staff time.

However, start-up costs for cellular metering can be significant, even without the expense of physical infrastructure. Buying and installing cellular meters can cost two to three times more than traditional meters. Staff and infrastructure costs will depend on what system you currently have in place. Cellular monitoring is compatible with most DEP and AWWA approved, AMR-compatible meters, but incompatible meters would need to be replaced. Staff may need to be retrained to install, maintain, and operate the new systems, as well as manage data, train customers, and set rates.

A growing trend

By 2020, it is estimated that 600,000 cellular water meters will be distributed annually, with companies such as Badger Meter, Arad Group, Neptune Technology Group, and Master Meter introducing cellular metering technologies.

So how does a small system decide if and when they too should adopt these new, game-changing cellular-based tools that are becoming more widely available and affordable? Much depends on each unique system’s needs and priorities, as well as the funding and political context in which they operate. Systems that are leak-prone or that need to step up their water conservation efforts may benefit from the daily feedback offered by cellular meters. Pilot programs or a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis can help utilities decide whether the tradeoffs in staff time, technology, and infrastructure expenses make sense. Finally, one of the best things to do is to talk to other systems about their experiences. Utilities with similar budgets, sizes, and goals can provide a lot of advice and references.

Resources:

Novato water district rolls out ‘smart’ meter pilot project news article, Marin Independent Journal 3/21/17

Big Data Flows: Water, Outsourcing, and the Flood of Data news article, EarthZine 6/30/15

Moving Towards Sustainable and Resilient Smart Water Grids journal article, Challenges 3/21/14

City looking to tap new water meters news article, Kingsville Record 3/1/15

RCAP - Water Metering Technologies presentation, RCAP Prezi 4/29/15

Advanced Metering Infrastructure, memo, City of Novi 4/24/15 

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.”