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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.


Jennifer Wilson
Jennifer Wilson
Jennifer Wilson's Blog

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.

Winterizing for Consumers and Small Water Systems

Here in central Illinois, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the trees are starting to turn. For those of us living in colder climates, the time is coming for us to batten down the hatches and prepare for winter’s snow, ice, and cold. Recently, one such forward-thinking operator asked us for information on winterizing service lines. After a little searching, here’s some guidance we found for him and for anyone else preparing their system for winter cold.

Winterizing for Water Systems

For operators looking to prepare their systems for winter, the Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems Using Ground Water (developed by the U.S. EPA and adapted by the Massachusetts DEP) provides month-by-month guidance on routine maintenance procedures that can help keep a system in top running condition. Search the document using the keyword “winter” to find relevant maintenance cards. The Indiana Section of the AWWA also has a winterizing checklist. See page 8 of this newsletter for their helpful tips and hints for water operators.

Consumer Information: Winterizing Plumbing and Thawing Frozen Pipes

Of course, operators are not the only ones facing the problem of inadequately winterized or frozen pipes. Consumers often need extra guidance in properly preparing their homes for cold weather, or in dealing with frozen pipes as they occur. Some resources for consumer information include:
  • RCAP’s consumer information flier on winterizing tips for around the house,
  • the Red Cross’s information page on winterizing pipes, and safely thawing pipes that have frozen,
  • this video by a real estate agent showing how to properly drain outside spigots for the winter,
  • and this video by a building contractor in Boulder, Colorado, which includes tips for turning off water to the house in the event of a burst pipe, ways of regulating temperatures so pipes don’t freeze in the first place, and advice on safely thawing pipes when they do freeze.

To see how other utilities have handled consumer information on winterizing pipes on their websites, see the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (for colder climates) and the Macon Water Authority (for climates with relatively mild winters, where the ground seldom freezes deeper than two inches). Though there may be contact information or policy information specific to these utilities on these pages, both provide thorough, accessible information to frequently asked consumer questions.

Are there other great winterizing resources that should be highlighted here? Tell us in the comments!

Coliform Sampling Best Practices

Our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) have released a new instructional video on how to collect coliform samples.

"Coliform sampling is an important part of monitoring the water quality in all drinking water systems. Collecting coliform samples correctly is absolutely critical in protecting public health. Improper sampling is the most common reason for false positive results. Positive results, even false positives, require repeat sampling, which result in extra effort, time, and money. In this video, we will cover 13 steps to proper coliform sampling and discuss how to find a good sampling site."