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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: 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

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. 
  • 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 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.

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face considerable management and operational challenges. This week's featured video highlights the benefits of attending a "Workshop in a Box: Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Systems" training to help manage these challenges. The video features people who who attended this training: small system managers, technical assistance providers, workshop participants, and a small town decision-maker. 

Interested in attending this training? An in-person session is scheduled for later this month (9/28) in Logan, West Virginia and will cover, among other things, how to use the Rural and Small Systems Guidebook to Sustainable Utility Management to make system improvements. This material will be also be covered in an USEPA webinar this coming Thursday (9/13) at 2 pm Eastern Time.

Help your utilities provide affordable and dependable water by attending this workshop and make your water systems a community priority.

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project

Water and wastewater systems can be some of a community's largest investments, so it is really important to get it right—decisions made in the early stages of infrastructure planning can impact a community for generations to come.

Community leaders are often tempted to let an outside consultant completely handle the project because they are worried they don't have the expertise to make the right decisions. However, it is important to stay actively involved so that the community’s voice is not lost and the project is appropriate, affordable, and supported by the public.

Certainly one of the most critical early-stage decisions in this process is who to hire as your engineer, the person who will be involved in nearly every aspect of the project from evaluating financing options, completing designs, obtaining permits, bidding the project, and the actual construction. And make no mistake, this hiring process can be a challenging task. Luckily, WaterOperator.org has a collection of resources to help you through.

For example, this RCAP <a href="https://rcap.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/RCAP-Getting-Your-Project-to-Flow-Smoothly.pdf>guide</a> explains the steps that communities can take to gain control of the project-development process. It is a very detailed how-to and includes many pitfalls to avoid. It discusses securing funding, how to stay organized, and, how to hire an engineer. RCAP recommends following a QBS (qualification-based selection) process in order to choose an engineer whose strengths, experience and skills match your system's needs.</p> <p>For more information regarding the QBS process, you can read this <a href=">manual from Ohio Qualification Based Selection Coalition (while some of the information may be specific to Ohio, much of the process is similar regardless of the state). In addition, RCAP has a handy list of 10 tips to help communities hire an engineer.

Other helpful resources in our library include Washington State DOH's guide for small public water systems on how to hire an engineer. Included in this guide are considerations regarding how to determine costs of services provided. Idaho's DEQ also has an engineer hiring guide that includes questions to ask during the interview. And this MAP guide emphasizes the importance of having a survey or analysis of the condition of your present system, as well as the problems a new project will address. This "Scope of Work", according to MAP, is perhaps the most important part of your Request for Proposals when searching for an engineer.

A final, but valuable, piece of advice, repeated throughout these resources, is that selection should be based on demonstrated competence and qualifications and not on price for services rendered. In this way, you can ensure that the project will be a valued community asset for years to come.