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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Websites Offer Conveniences for Utilities and Customers

If you’re reading this, you're probably already aware of the power of the internet to share information and raise awareness of important issues. Hopefully you think some websites (like ours!) are useful. But have you considered getting a website for your own utility? If you don’t have a website already, here are some things to consider.

Benefits of Going Online

A utility website can provide a number of services, both to you and to your customers. At the most basic level, a website can house the information people ask you for all the time: utility fee information, FAQs, maybe some fact sheets on common local concerns like water conservation or winterizing. Not only does this provide a convenient place to direct people for more information, but some people may Google first, and find what they’re looking for before they have to try tracking you down by phone.

Beyond this basic usefulness, websites can be outfitted with customer service contact forms, new service request forms, CCRs, board meeting schedules and minutes, online bill pay options, and other resources. Contact forms usually feed into an email account, which can be used to collect and organize non-emergency customer communication even when you’re not available. Online bill pay is a convenience for your customers, and online CCR distribution, if your utility is eligible, can be a convenience for you.

Website Building Services

If you’d be interesting in gaining the convenience of a website without having to set one up on your own, there are services that can help. As an example (but not an endorsement), Rural Water Impact provides website setup and migration services specifically for small water utilities. GoDaddy also offers a range of website design and hosting packages. And if you’d like to try your hand at a straight-forward design, services like Weebly and Squarespace make it as easy as drag and drop.

As always, we here at WaterOperator.org are happy to help you think through your website needs. You can reach us at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

Planning for the Future

The convenience and organization of a good website can provide plenty of benefit in the present. But those benefits can stretch into the future, as young people accustomed to cell phones and internet use start getting old enough to pay the bills. In addition to providing convenience to you and your customers now, having an established website can prepare you and your utility for a new, more digital future.

A Few Considerations 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that water districts—among others—provide equal access to programs and services. One way to meet these requirements is to ensure that your website makes use of accessible design features. Systems with inaccessible sites may also be able to meet their legal obligations by providing an alternative way for people to access the information provide, such as a staffed telephone line. You can learn more about ADA requirements by calling the Department of Justice's toll-free information line at 800-514-0301. 

State law may also require that public utilities with websites maintained by utility staff post meeting schedules, agendas, and minutes. Your primacy agency should be aware of these requirements and can direct you to the appropriate state office for more detailed information.

If these requirements give you pause, consider talking with city or town officials to see if your system can instead be an active partner on their website. This is also a good option for systems concerned that under-staffing makes maintaining a website impossible. 

Engaging Customers in a Digital World

Like most Americans, your customers probably spend half their day staring at screen—checking emails, commenting on Facebook profiles, scrolling through Twitter feeds. In fact, the Council for Research Excellence recently announced the results of a media study that revealed that 68 percent of us use at least two media platforms—tv, computer, smartphone, audio, print, tablet—at the same time in an average day.

Here’s the take away: joining or becoming more active on social media platforms means meeting customers where they already go to receive information and news.

But, like most things, doing well on social media is much easier said than done. Today we’re sharing a few overarching tips and tricks, but finding the right platform and devising a successful media strategy may require more detailed discussions and a bit of trial and error.

Fortunately, Small Communities #TalkAboutWater is a great place to have these conversations with others who understand the unique challenges faced by small systems. You can also reach out to us directly at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

  1. Define your goals and audience. Are you looking for greater community engagement? Are you in need of easier, more direct ways to share public notices? Maybe you want to connect with local and state officials. The more specific your goals and audience are, the easier it will be to choose the right social media platform and measure success.
  2. Remember not all platforms are created equally. If your system doesn’t frequently generate new pictures, graphics, or videos, Pinterest and Instagram are likely not for you. If you want to share more detailed messages—perhaps about road closures due to pipeline repairs or tips for conserving water—Facebook may be a better choice than Twitter. This article from The Next Web has more information about the pros and cons of different platforms.
  3. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Time and personnel are precious commodities for small systems. Having a smart social media strategy is worth the time, but don’t feel like you need to join multiple platforms at once or post hourly. Consider starting with a single platform and a more conservative media strategy. The key is sustainability.
  4. Make use of your existing network. Invite customers to follow and like your page(s) in your next newsletter or with a bill insert. Put links to your social media pages on your website. Encourage your existing followers to tell their friends.
  5. Prioritize customer service. For many people, an organization Facebook or Twitter page is their first stop when they have questions or concerns. Stay on top of customer issues by responding within 12 hours. And be sure to re-share favorable experiences posted by customers across your social channels.
  6. Start conversations. It’s called “social media” for a reason. The most successful users ask questions that engage followers and inspire them to weigh in on topics they care about. For example, ask customers to share their favorite water conservation practice.
  7. Share your expertise. Customers see water systems as reputable sources for information on water supply and quality issues. Share little-known facts, post links to important information, provide access to reports or relevant research.  
  8. Get personal. Social media is a place for genuine engagement. A lot of the communication water systems have with rate payers is prescribed—public notices, bills, etc. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show the personal side of your operations. Talk about what you’re excited about, highlight staff successes, wish people a happy Friday.

Emergency Planning Goes Digital

They call this the age of the internet, so it probably comes as little surprise to hear that there is a whole host of computer and mobile tools designed to make emergency and adaptation planning easier and more effective for utilities and communities.  

We’ve highlighted a few U.S. EPA tools below, but there are many more with a range of features. If you’d like support finding the right tool for your system, drop us a line at 1-866-522-2681 or info@wateroperator.org. And for those who just prefer hardcopy, click here for a list of free emergency response plan templates.  

Tabletop Exercise Tool for Water Systems

This PC-based tool contains materials to assist those interested in planning and facilitating tabletop exercises that focus on water sector-related issues. Fifteen customizable scenarios address natural hazards and man-made incidents and introduce the potential impacts of climate change on the water sector.

Water Utility Response On-The-Go

The homepage of this mobile-friendly website displays a menu of links for tracking severe weather, contacting response partners, responding to incidents, taking notes and recording damage, informing incident command, and accessing additional planning info. Some of the external links from the site are not formatted for mobile viewing, and the .pdf forms may require an Adobe Reader app if you wish to fill them out on your mobile device. However, the site overall is well organized and easy to navigate, and can be a great tool for utilities dealing with weather emergencies and natural disasters. Click here to watch a short video about the site.

Community-Based Water Resiliency Tool

The CBWR Tool is an easy way to find out how prepared your community is to handle emergencies that impact water systems and learn about tools and resources that can be used to build resilience. A summary report is provided after the self-assessment with suggestions and recommended resources for increasing resilience. Users can then navigate to the CBWR toolbox, where they can find the best tool for their needs from over 400 tools and resources. Learn more about the benefits of the CBWR tool in this A Day Without Water video.

Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool

This risk assessment tool allows water utilities to evaluate potential impacts of climate change. The tool guides users through identifying regional climate change threats and designing adaptation plans. After assessment, CREAT provides a series of risk reduction and cost reports to allow you to evaluate various adaptation options as part of long-term planning. Visit the U.S. EPA YouTube channel for a complete introduction and videos showcasing how systems throughout the country have used CREAT to boost their preparedness.

Tools to Help Utilities Get the Word Out Fast

Last week, we talked about the role public advisories can be used to garner community buy-in and create more informed rate payers. Planning and adopting a comprehensive advisory framework, though, takes time—something most small utilities just don’t have to spare.

With that reality in mind, we wanted to let you know about a few public notification services available on the market. A quick disclaimer first—we at WaterOperator.org aren’t endorsing these or any other company, and we recommend you do research on your own to find the system that best fits your needs. Whether you contact one of these companies, another, or none at all, it’s worth the time to find out how a system like this might benefit your community. Also, please remember to check with your primacy agency as to whether your chosen (lowercase) public notification option may or may not be used for compliance with the requirements of the (uppercase) Public Notification regulation, or simply as a trust-promoting public service.

Swiftreach Networks

Using the SwiftH2O™ internet-based platform, utilities easily create and send thousands of voice, text, fax and email messages within minutes to any number of individuals on any device. These notifications are directly targeted to affected customers and tracked, allowing you to track who received and listened to your messages.

RapdiNotify

This international company’s web-based mass notification system allows you to notify your staff, rate payers, and other contacts via phone, email, and text messages. The product includes a self-registration widget for your website, as well as GIS mapping to help you target mass communication inside specific, user-defined geographic areas.

WARN

WARN offers multiple notification platforms built with small communities in mind. WARN Mass Notify makes it possible and easy to contact thousands of homes, work, and cell numbers a minute, as well as send texts, emails, and faxes.

If paid services aren’t right for your utility, remember that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have extremely broad reaches—with the added perk of allowing rate payers to respond. Whether your system is a social media beginner or veteran, the free resources below are worth checking out.

Communications, Customer Service, Social Networking

This 10-slide presentation breaks social media sites into basic kinds (conversational, one-way, interactive, etc.), and briefly discusses how many people use many of the most popular sites, basic uses of some social media outlets, and customer service on social media. 

Social Networking: The Old and the New, Interaction and Communication Between Communities and Their Customers and Operator to Operator Connectivity

This 23-slide presentation discusses social networking and social media. It discusses the importance, possible uses, and approach to using social media, particularly Facebook, for communication and outreach, and includes several screenshots of national water organization's Facebook pages. 

You can also contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org or join our Small Communities #TalkAboutWater LinkedIn group to get advice on how to tap into the power of social media. 

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

ILWARN Offers Emergency Assistance for Small Systems

A lot of challenges can impact a small utility. Anything from a tornado to multiple water main breaks on the same day to half the staff out with the flu can have a huge effect on a utility’s ability to function. While small local agreements are often a great first step to ensuring your bases are covered in the event of an emergency, statewide programs like ILWARN can be a great supplement to your emergency planning.

Small Utility Support

ILWARN is working to get the word out that the mutual aid assistance services they offer can be just as useful to small systems as they are to large ones. Their small systems flyer provides lots of introductory information, FAQs, and mythbusting on their resources and membership requirements. It’s worth noting here that there is no registration fee to join ILWARN, there are no size restriction, that members will be reimbursed for their assistance, and that no member is required to offer assistance. Pre-existing local agreements are not affected by ILWARN membership. Utilities wanting a more detailed idea of how ILWARN membership works might also want to check out the Operational Plan, which has resource sections for before, during, and after an emergency. 

A Helping Hand in the Signup Process

If you’re convinced ILWARN is a solid resource for your utility, there are more resources to help you get started. ILWARN has provided step-by-step guides to completing your registration with their website, requesting and offering assistance through the website, and requesting and offering assistance when the internet isn’t available or an emergency occurs after hours. And of course, you need to sign the mutual aid agreement and turn it in before you can participate in ILWARN assistance requests. 

Small utilities face lots of challenges, but you don’t have to face them alone. Statewide mutual aid agreements help get as many people as possible in your corner when the chips are down. If your utility isn’t in Illinois but you’re interested in WARNs in your area, check out this map.

Better ERPs Part 4: Is Your System All-Hazard Ready?

Last year saw record-breaking heat, severe storms, and worsening drought conditions across the country. And current NOAA predictions suggests the first half of 2016 won’t be much different as El Nino continues to have widespread effects. If these events have left you asking, “What would I do if something like that happened in my community,” you’re not alone. 

In part four of our series on improving emergency response plans, we want to help you find an answer. The tips and resources below will walk you through the process of developing an all-hazards response plan and provide specific guidance for some of the most common hazards.

  1. Understand your vulnerability to extreme weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a great resource here. Their PrepareAthon website has information on when and where extreme events are most likely to take place.
  2. Identify vulnerable assets. Are key equipment located in the floodplain? Are your circuitry and control panels secured for high winds?
  3. Identify possible mitigation measures would protect vulnerable assets and priority operations. Putting in place a procedure to top off water in storage tanks prior to a hurricane or bolting down chemical tanks in advance of a flood are just a few examples.
  4. Determine which mitigation measures should be implemented. Keep in mind costs, effectiveness, and practicality when making this decision.
  5. Identify actions that will need to be taken immediately before and after an event. For example, sandbagging treatment sheds or turning off water meters at destroyed homes and buildings.
  6. Write a plan to implement mitigation and rapid-response measures. This should be revised periodically and integrated into your utility's overall asset management process.
  7. Be prepared to act. Include rapid-response measures in your employee training programs and keep staff and other stakeholders up-to-date on any changes.

For more planning tips and information on common hazards, check out these resources and visit our documents database. You can also learn more about drought preparedness in part two of this series.

Water/Wastewater All-Hazards Boot Camp Training
This training course is designed for water and wastewater employees responsible for emergency response and recovery activities. It also explains why and how to implement an all-hazards program. The program walks you through a scenario with Our Town Utility staff, lets you hear from water sector representatives, and tests your knowledge on prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH)-related Emergencies & Outbreaks
This CDC portal offers a comprehensive set of tools and resources for not only responding to a crisis but also preparing for the worst. Preparedness resources include preparedness toolkits, preparedness training, and directions for emergency disinfection of water.

Climate Ready Water Utility: Adaptation Strategies Guide & Planning for Extreme Weather Events
This webinar presentation highlights the Workshop Planner and the Adaptation Strategies Guide, and how a utility can use them both when developing adaptation plans. It also highlights utility experiences with the tools.

Drinking Water Natural Disaster Preparedness Guide
This 3-page document contains suggestions for public water supplies that the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) recognizes as lessons learned from areas in Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Flood Resilience: A Basic Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities
With a user-friendly layout, embedded videos, and flood maps to guide you, EPA's Flood Resilience Guide is your one-stop resource to know your flooding threat and identify practical mitigation options to protect your critical assets.

Incident Action Checklist – Tornado
Use this comprehensive list from U.S. EPA to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a tornado.

Emergency Response for Drinking and Wastewater Utilities
This EPA portal has a variety of tools, including mobile-friendly websites, to support utility preparedness and response.

Better ERPs Part 3: Are You Prepared for a Drought?

For those of us outside the arid West, it can be easy to push aside droughts and their impacts as something others have to worry about. But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor quickly reveals that droughts—even long-term ones—are a concern coast-to-coast. In fact, increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are exposing more and more communities to the risk of droughts and other extreme weather events.

Incorporating a drought contingency plan into your broader emergency response plan is one of the best ways to ensure your public water system is prepared for water shortages and other drought impacts. And there are a number of resources available to help you do just that.

The templates and guides below can help you design a plan that meets your system and community needs. Whether you use one of these or create your own, keep in mind these seven steps to an effective drought management plan. These were developed by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation based on the model used by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

  1. Seek public involvement by forming a committee of stakeholders who encourage and support a public "buy-in.
  2. Define goals and objectives, such as targets for reduced consumption, identifying which customers can and should be restricted and which cannot, legal requirements, minimum flow requirements, etc.
  3. Assess supply and demand—identify all existing and potential water supply sources and balance these against average and peak demand, historic demand trends, use by customer sector, interior vs. exterior use, and projected future demand.
  4. Define a system-specific drought index, such as ground and/or surface water storage, stream flows, soil moisture, rainfall deficit, well drawdown levels, and other indices.
  5. Identify potential mitigation measures, such as water audits, alternative supplies, leak detection and repair, public education, restrictions/bans on non-essential use, pricing disincentives (surcharges), and, finally, rationing.
  6. Assess potential impacts of mitigation measures, such as reduced revenues, customer acceptance, rate equity, legal implications, history, and implementation costs.
  7. Develop and implement the plan using the management strategies, templates, and statistics assembled during the assessment process.
If you don't see something that fits your system's needs below, search "drought" in our documents database to find more resources. You can also find information on water conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy for small utilities in Sustainable Infrastructure for Small System Public Services: A Planning and Resource Guide. And be sure to read the Part 2 of this four-part series for help building a comprehensive emergency response plan.

Drought Contingency Plan for a Public Water System (Example): ABC Water Company Drought Contingency Plan
This 11-page document provides an example of how to fill out the model drought contingency plan for retail public water suppliers.

Drought Management Toolkit for Public Water Suppliers
This 49-page handbook was developed by the Utah Division of Water Resources to help public water suppliers better prepare for and manage future droughts. This toolkit consists of two main elements: a model drought mitigation plan and a model drought response plan (or contingency plan, which can also be used to address other water shortages).

Drought Contingency Plan summary—Well Levels Known
This 1-page document, when completed, summarizes an operator's plan for a drought. It is broken down into three stages, depending on how severe the drought is.

Drought Contingency Plan: Public Water System
This 36-page template can be used for a drought contingency plan for a tribal public water system. The template covers a broad list of sections and topics with the aim of being applicable for a majority of the water systems. Because tribal water systems vary, it is recommended that the tribe edit and modify the template to best fit their specific situation and context, and only include those sections that are necessary.

Better ERPs Part 2: Templates

So you've held a water emergency roundtable discussion and are ready to put pen to paper, so to speak. Fortunately, you don't have to start with a blank piece of paper. There is a suite of resources available for utilities—and small water suppliers particularly—to help you prepare for the unknown and plan for the rare events.

The free templates provided here will help you get started. If you don't see something that fits your system's needs, search "emergency response plan templates" in our documents database to find more resources.

Emergency Response Planning Template for Public Drinking Water Systems

This 20-page document developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership is intended for use by any water system serving a population of 3,300 or fewer and can be modified to fit specific system needs. The template is intended to be used as a starting point based on what is relevant for the type, size, and complexity of the system.

Rural & Small Water and Wastewater System Emergency Response Plan Template
This 48-page template is designed to be a guide for Emergency Response Planning. Emergency response planning should be a coordinated and planned process. Proper planning can lessen the impact of an emergency. All staff should be trained as to their responsibility within the plan and how it will be implemented. This template was designed to address various emergency hazards that may occur in rural and small systems. It incorporates emergencies that may be the result of terrorism. Regardless of the type of emergency whether natural or man-made each system has the responsibility to be prepared to protect the public health and to restore services that may be impacted.

Disaster-Specific Preparedness/Response Plan for Public Drinking Water Systems - XYZ Water System Template
This 25-page template has been developed to help you prepare your Emergency Response Plan. The ERP Guide (see separate document, here) and Template is intended for use by any water system and may be modified to fit the specific needs of each system. The ERP guide follows the outline in the template—section by section

Emergency Response Plan Template
This 26-page form is an outline of an emergency response plan for water operators to fill out and complete. This document is in pdf form, but the fillable Word format of this document can be found here.

Emergency Response Plan of Action
This 40-page template is used to create an emergency response plan for a public water system. There are many situations that may cause impairment of water quality or disruption of service. In Maine, the most common is loss of water pressure or contamination of the water supply, source, or lines. Some common examples include main breaks, power outage, treatment failure, numerous types of contamination, extreme weather and or structural damage, floods, and equipment failure. This template goes over each topic to create the most efficient ERP. 

Better ERPs Part 1: Hosting a Roundtable Discussion

Creating a strong emergency plan is often easier said than done—and the middle of an emergency is the worst time to discover you’ve forgotten something. This is the first of a four-part series with guides and tips to help you build a comprehensive emergency response plan. 

Before you start drafting, though, consider hosting a water emergency roundtable discussion. These events provide a unique opportunity to connect water security with broader preparedness and community resiliency efforts underway in your region. Here’s a quick glance at what you can do to host a successful discussion: 

  1. Consult with partners within your water community to identify the groups that need to be at the table. Some groups to consider include hospitals, schools, farm operations, industrial parks, municipal pools, and first responders.
  2. Set a date and secure a meeting place that meets your meeting needs.
  3. Work with partners or co-hosts to ensure that the room has the equipment needed, such as a laptop, PowerPoint projector, and pens and pads for meeting participants.
  4. Have your water utility manager or superintendent call the groups to invite them to the event. A personal call typically results in a more positive response and can be followed by a formal invite and RSVP request.
  5. Call confirmed participants to outline what types of information participants will need to bring with them, how the discussion will be facilitated, and how sensitive information will be treated.
  6. Confirm with partners or co-hosts who will be responsible for facilitating the discussion, compiling participant data, putting together registration packets, welcoming participants, presenting, taking notes, and writing a meeting summary.
  7. Arrive at least on hour before the event is scheduled to set up materials and manage last minute details.
  8. Use meeting notes and discussed action items to develop a short report for participants.
  9. Write and distribute an internal and external report on progress towards action items approximately six months after the event.
  10. Determine the need for a follow-up meeting.

For more tips and sample invitation scripts, read the Water Emergency Roundtable—Outline for Discussion developed by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and EPA Region 5. And check back for part two of our series for free templates you can use when you're ready to write your emergency response plan. 

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