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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

What Operators Should Know about PFAS in 2019

What Operators Should Know about PFAS in 2019

In February of 2019, the EPA released an action plan to manage the contamination of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in water. The plan will propose an MCL regulatory determination for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) detected under the UCMR3 by the end of 2019 and will continue environmental cleanup.

The UCMR3 found that areas with affiliated industrial sites, military fire training, and wastewater treatment plants were associated with PFOA and PFOS detection. Once released, PFASs can persist in the environment for the long periods of time, bioaccumulating in humans and animals that consume contaminated drinking water. A new health advisory for these chemicals has set the maximum recommended concentration in drinking water at 70 ppt. Exposure above this threshold may cause developmental defects, cancer, liver damage, immune issues, metabolic effects, and endocrine changes. 

Unfortunately, a health advisory is not enough to protect consumers from PFAS in drinking water as it does not legally require utilities to take action against unsafe levels. In the absence of necessary regulatory authority, several states have pushed forward with their own policies. These states have struggled with how to implement a standard without clear federal guidelines. Despite this, many states are working to set or have already set their own maximum contaminant levels. 

Options for reducing exposure to elevated PFAS contamination include changing sources, closing off contaminated wells, alteration of blending rates, or implementation of treatment. Studies have found that granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange, or membrane separation can treat PFAS. The removal efficiency can reach 98-99%, but it will ultimately depends on the length of the PFAS chain and the treatment method used. Installing a new treatment method is financially devastating for many systems. Alabama’s West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL) estimates that the costs to install a permanent R.O. filter will reach $30-50 million. The authority has filed a lawsuit that could assist with funding the necessary upgrades.


There is currently no standardized analysis approved for PFAS testing in drinking water, however laboratories have modified the EPA groundwater detection method 537 for systems in need of monitoring. When using this method, the EPA recommends that systems “evaluate its appropriateness relative to your goals for the data.” In some locations PFAS regulators and manufacturers have also set up programs to monitor groundwater contamination. You can contact your state primacy to learn about these types of resources. 

If test results repeatedly indicate water concentrations of 70 ppt or greater for either contaminant, systems should follow any existing state regulations and promptly notify their primacy and customers. In absence of regulations, c
ustomers should be informed of the health effects and advised to consume bottled water until a better option is available. Download a consumer-friendly fact sheet from CDC.

Featured Video: Flushable Wipe's Effects on Our Sewer System

Featured Video: Flushable Wipe's Effects on Our Sewer System

Many collection systems struggle to prevent the costly and time consuming repairs associated with flushable wipes. Despite the label these wipes remain intact in sewer systems. They often clump into large blockages held together by grease. When the blockage becomes too large, sewers experience sanitary backups and pricey pump damage. 

This week’s featured video reviews the management options for flushable wipes as explained by Great Lakes Water Authority. One common solution for wipe buildup requires the installation of sewer grates and filter screens. Though operators will be required to regularly clear away wipe accumulation, systems can plan for the added maintenance expenses while preventing unexpected downtime. Other systems may choose to break down wipes with chopper pumps or grinder pumps, however this can lead to reweaving later in the collection system.

The video ultimately demonstrates that there is no single and efficient method to avoid wipe backups other than consumer education. With the final costs of wipe maintenance funded by the rate-payer, collection systems should be vocal in educating their customers about the products that can and cannot be flushed down the toilet. For more information on flushable products, check out our blog post Will it Flush.

Featured Video: Smelly Lagoon? Diagnosing and Correcting Lagoon Odors

Featured Video: Smelly Lagoon? Diagnosing and Correcting Lagoon Odors

As weather begins warming up for spring, many lagoons system owners have to manage odor issues and water turnover. In this week’s featured video, an experienced “Lagoon-atic” describes what causes lagoon odors and the best practices to manage them.

The most dreaded odors from lagoons systems are caused by sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases. These gases emit a rotten egg odor that often leads to complaints from locals in the area. Under oxygen-stressed conditions, insufficient dissolved oxygen (DO) levels favor anaerobic digestion of biological oxygen demand (BOD) and sludge by sulfur bacteria.

There are many causes for low DO in lagoon systems including overloading, sludge build up, and lagoon turnover during season changes. The video suggests solutions for low DO reviewing aeration, baffles, bioaugmentation, and lagoon covers. When aeration is not financially practical, using a pump to recirculate the water can resolve most odor issues caused by sulfur bacteria.


This video also discusses the earthy smell of a healthy lagoon and other odor causing problems a lagoon may experience. Grassy odors indicate high levels of algae favored by warming temperatures, long detention times, excess sunlight, and excess nutrients. As spring approaches the solubilization of solids from the sludge blanket can cause nutrient release. This issue can be corrected by a reduction in the sludge blanket. Fishy odors may result from cyanobacteria growth under conditions with warm temperatures, high nutrient levels, thermal stratification, and still water. The longer water remains still, potential for cyanobacteria growth increases. Cyanobacteria can be reduced with chemical control, aeration, circulation, and ultrasonic waves. 

Spring time has potential to pose many odor issues for lagoon systems. Operators can maintain a healthy lagoon by ensuring sufficient DO levels, controlling sludge buildup, and mixing.

An Overview of Drinking Water Fluoridation

An Overview of Drinking Water Fluoridation
Despite a long history of dental health benefits, the fluoridation of community drinking water remains a topic of concern for many customers. Given this apprehension, water operators must be able to explain the societal impacts and history of water fluoridation to alleviate concerns. 

Fluoridating drinking water first began in 1945 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The new practice resulted in a clear reduction in cavities and tooth decay, one of the most prevalent chronic diseases experienced during childhood to this day. As of 2014 about 74% of consumers under a community public water system received fluoridated water. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), school children in communities without fluoridation have 25% more tooth decay compared to children in treated communities. These cavities can cause a variety of issues related to pain, diet, sleep, physical health, and mental health.

With cost efficiency community fluoridation overcomes disparities in oral health regardless of community size, age, education, or income level. A dental health study found that the savings from fluoridation in communities of 1,000 people or more exceeded program costs by $20 per every dollar invested. When Juneau, Alaska voted to end fluoridation in 2007, a study found that children six years and under had an increase of one dental cavity per year, roughly equivalent to $300 in dental costs per child annually. Juneau’s increase in cavities was also reflected in adults.

All water contains some levels of naturally-occurring fluoride though these levels are often too low for health benefits. In untreated water, fluoride levels vary considerably with geology and land practices. Fluoride is introduced to water when dissolved from the Earth’s crust into groundwater or discharged from fertilizer and aluminum factories. Systems with fluoridation should set final levels near 0.7 mg/L as suggested by the Department of Public Health. This concentration factors for other sources of consumer fluoride exposure such as toothpaste. Fluorosilicic acid (FSA) is most commonly used in water treatment. Though fluoridation decisions are left to a state or local municipality, the EPA has established federal standards for the upper limits allowed in drinking water.

At high levels fluoride can cause the development of bone disease and tooth mottling. As a result, the EPA has set both the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and the MCL for fluoride at 4 mg/L. Levels higher than 4 mg/L can lead to increased rates of bone fracture, Enamel Fluorosis, and Skeletal Fluorosis. If systems find fluoride concentrations higher than the MCL, they are required to notify customers within 30 days and potentially install treatment methods such as distillation or reverse osmosis to remove the excess fluoride. 

The EPA has also set a secondary standard for fluoride at 2.0 mg/L. The secondary standard is intended to be used as a guideline for an upper bound level in areas with high levels of naturally occurring fluoride. Below this level, the chance for tooth mottling and more severe health impacts are close to zero. Even if the secondary standard is reached, systems must notify customers. In the U.S. very few systems have exceeded the fluoride MCL at all. Where violations have occurred, the concentrations are generally a result of natural, geological conditions. 

Even with this track record, some concerned customers are still weary of fluoridation. When customers broach fluoridation concerns, operators can offer educational materials and refer customers to consumer confidences reports. The CDC and the EPA offers a variety of consumer-friendly educational material that operators can reference in addition to the resources linked in this blog post. Remember that good customer service starts by establishing a trusted relationship with your community.

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Succession planning in the water industry has led to a growing demand for new operators. In addition to job security, the career path offers great benefits and opportunities to develop professionally while directly improving local communities. 

In this 10 minute interview by California Water Jobs, a successful operator describes the plans he accomplished to become an operations technician foreman for the Desert Water Agency. Before his career in water, Emmanuel Sarpong worked as a Field Radio Operator for the U.S. Marine Corps. He notes that his experience in the military gave him the discipline, communication skills, and problem solving abilities essential for utility operations and maintenance. A workday for Emmanuel is always changing, whether he’s putting treatment filters back on line, collecting water samples, or even pushing a broom for an upcoming tour.

To become an operator, Emmanuel began employment with a water utility as a general worker in construction. During this time he took correspondence courses with the state of California to obtain the certification that would allow him to advance into operations. He discusses his mentor Tom, an experienced foreman who trusted him to tackle projects that trained him in the skills he uses everyday. Emmanuel’s advice to operators is to keep pushing for higher levels of certification. 

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

If you're a real estate agent representing the buyer or the seller of a commercial property (not a private home), you may have questions about how to best inform your client about a property's water system during a property transaction. A good place to start is to understand if this property has its own water supply (typically a water well), and if so, if it might be a public water system. Public water systems are required by law to meet the requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure the water is safe to drink.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a public drinking water system is defined as “a system for the provision of water to the public for human consumption." If such a system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves an average of at least 25 individuals daily at least 60 days out of the year, then it is a public water system. The 15 connections part of the definition is for a community system, meaning a water supply providing water to at least 15 residential services where people live (their homes). The only examples of a community water system that you might deal with for property sales would likely be a mobile home park or apartment complex with at least 15 residences or 25 residents AND its own water supply.

The rest are all considered “non-community” systems. For non-community systems, which are commercial private properties that are not residential, it means that if the property has its own water supply and at least 60 days a year has 25 people who could be drinking the water, then it is a public water supply. Examples of non-community systems include places many people stop at frequently (transient systems), like restaurants, gas stations, motels, churches, state parks, or rest areas; or places where people spend their day for work, school, or care (non-transient systems), like factories, schools, day cares, or businesses. So there are two types of non-community systems, transient non community water systems (TNC’s) and non-transient, non-community water systems (NTNC’s). TNC’s serve at least 25 people at least 60 days a year, but they are not necessarily the same people. NTNC’s serve at least 25 of the same people at least 60 days a year.

To complicate matters a bit, TNC’s and NTNC’s may have different certification, testing and reporting requirements, although you will need to check with your individual state (click on the "Drinking Water Primacy Agencies" tab) as the requirements may vary state to state. In Illinois, for examples, the state regulates licensed operators differently for community and non-community systems.

It is important that you understand these differences and can share them with the potential buyer. They may have no experience with managing a public water supply, and being informed in advance and understanding these responsibilities is a critical component of any property transaction. If a property is a public water supply, we would advise the potential buyer or seller to have an inspection conducted to learn more about the system (and help you promote the property if the inspection report is positive). Some states may require a public water supply review or have disclosure requirements when a property changes hands; be sure you check with your state agency.

Other Considerations

It may be that a sale hinges or is held up because it is a public water supply. A possible alternative is to contract with a management entity that has licensed operators and would be responsible for the water supply. Another consideration, if there is a community water supply nearby, would be to determine the feasibility of connecting to that existing supply, thus becoming a water customer instead of a water provider.

In addition, the state regulatory agency may provide informational resources for buyers, sellers and their agents. The Wisconsin DNR, for example, offers a handbook for non-transient, non-community (NTNC) systems as well as one for transient, non-community (TNC) systems. Washington State Department of Health also provides fact sheets to advise parties involved in real estate transactions on owning and managing small water systems.

You can find more resources in our document search by selecting “Non-community systems” as the category, and then using the terms “owner” or “guidance” in the keyword filter. If you have any questions, you can also contact our staff (info@wateroperator.org) for additional help finding information. 

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Interested in a new way to tell your water system stories? Do you want to reach out to a diverse audience using maps and data in order to help them visualize and more completely understand the issues? Then a Story Map might be just the ticket.

In the past year or so, we at WaterOperator.org have collected examples of how ESRI's Story Maps are being used by water utilities, agencies, states and local governments. Here are few of our favorites:

This Story Map from Cobb County, GA answers the age-old question, "Where do we get our drinking water from?"

And this one from Clarkstown, NY uses all sorts of graphics, 3-D visualizations and maps to illustrate how it maintains its vast MS4 stormwater system. 

The USEPA has also been using this new tool to collect case studies and utility stories for its Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities

The state of California Division of Drinking Water is using Story Maps to present lead sampling results for its public schools, updated monthly to reflect additional samples they receive. 

And here is an example of a tribal Story Map that shows how the Samish Indian Nation is building resilience for the future impact of climate change in Washington State. 

For even more inspiring examples, Esri hosts a website of contest-winning Story Maps and a Gallery of Story Maps using creative approaches and best practices in a wide range of subjects and industries. 

Story Maps are a great way to combine maps with text, images, videos and more to create impactful stories to leverage support for your water system and to communicate effectively with your audience. Story Maps are part of ArcGIS Online, Esri's cloud-based mapping and GIS platform, and you can register for a free ArcGIS public account here.

Ready to get started? The Learn ArcGIS website has this series of three 30-60 minute lessons, and/or you can watch the video below, and/or read this recent blog post on How to Make a Story Map. 

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

Being a small-town water operator is not easy; it is up to you to ensure the quality of your community's water day-in and day-out, often with very limited resources. Let WaterOperator.org help you meet the challenge head-on with this list of tools and resources to put on your radar for the year ahead:

  • Have you gotten in the groove yet with the new RTCR requirements? Here are two new documents from the USEPA designed to help small public water systems: Revised Total Coliform Rule Placards and a Revised Total Coliform Rule Sample Siting Plan with Template Manual. Additional compliance help, including public notification templates, a RTCR rule guide, a corrective actions guidance and more can be found here.
  • While we know your hands are full just getting the job done, there are new and emerging issues you may have to deal with in the year ahead. For example, this past year many communities have been dealing with PFAS contamination issues. This ITRC website provides PFAS fact sheets that are regularly being updated on PFAS regulations, guidance, advisories and remediation methods. Especially of interest is this excel file that has begun to list the different state standards and guidance values for PFAS in drinking water as they are developed. Be sure to check back often for updates.  
  • Your utility may also have to adjust to new compliance rules in the coming year. In Michigan, for example, a new Lead and Copper Rule arising from the water crisis in Flint has gone into effect, making it the strictest in the nation. Other states, such as Ohio, have also adopted tougher standards, or are now requiring schools to test for lead. Oregon has established temporary rules that will require drinking water systems in the state using certain surface water sources to routinely test for cyanotoxins and notify the public about the test results.
  • With a warming climate, these incidences of harmful algal blooms in surface water are on the increase, causing all sorts of challenges for water systems that now have to treat this contaminant. This cyanotoxin management template from the EPA can help assist you with a plan specific to your location.
  • Worker turnover and retirements will still be an issue in 2019. According to this article, the median age for water workers in general (42.8 years) and water treatment operators specifically (46.4 years) are both above the national average across all occupations (42.2 years). You can keep transitions as smooth as possible by using EPA's Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet and/or this Electronic Preventive Maintenance Log
  • New Tech Solutions: A UMass lab focusing on affordable water treatment technologies for small systems will be rolling out its Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory in 2019 for on-site testing. In addition, the facility is testing approaches to help communities address water-quality issues in affordable ways. "Early next year, in the maiden voyage of the mobile water treatment lab, UMass engineer David Reckhow plans to test ferrate, an ion of iron, as a replacement for several water treatments steps in the small town of Gloucester, MA. 
But even without all these challenges and new ideas for the future, simply achieving compliance on a day-to-day basis can be tricky - if this sounds familiar, you may want to check out our recent video on how operators can approach the most common drinking water compliance issues.

Featured Video: Drought Response and Recovery in the Town of Castine, ME

Featured Video: Drought Response and Recovery in the Town of Castine, ME

This week's featured video tells the story of how  the small town of Castine, ME headed off recent drought and infrastructure challenges - a story that may be adaptable to other small systems nationwide. This video is featured on the USEPA's Drought Response and Recovery StoryMap Project for Water Utilities (ArcGIS) and is included as a case study resource in their recently updated Drought Response and Recovery Guide for Water Utilities guide. 

Ethics for Small Water Systems

Ethics for Small Water Systems
Being a small town operator takes strong character and a community spirit, but there are always those few who make it rough on all of us. Whether it is doctoring compliance reports, siphoning off grant money for personal use, or, as this recent news article reports, using inside knowledge and/or tools to avoid water bills, water operators can sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

That is certainly what happened in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, back in 2000. According to the inquiry report, water operators there "engaged in a host of improper operating practices, including including failing to use adequate doses of chlorine, failing to monitor chlorine residuals daily, making false entries about residuals in daily operating records, and misstating the locations at which microbiological samples were taken. The operators knew that these practices were unacceptable and contrary to MOE guidelines and directives.  In the end, over 2300 people (about half the population of the town!) contracted a virulent strain of E. Coli, and 7 people ended up dying. 

While this example is extreme, it is a good reminder that unethical behavior can result in very real, and tragic, consequences, for the community as well as for the operators involved - and this goes for even small oversights or infractions. This is why it is important to be reminded of ethical responsibilities on a regular basis, whether through required trainings, or a review of an operator Code of Ethics. 

Wondering what is included in a Operator's Code of Ethics?  Some states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia offer them, as do some operator's association such as the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association and the New England Water Works Association (they also have one for laboratory personnel). NEWWA also has a list of offenses that should invoke enforcement action against operators, including suspension or revocation of certification. In addition, NEIWPCC has a report on the results of a nationwide survey on how operator discipline & rule enforcement is conducted. 

It is also a good idea to attend ethics trainings when they are available in your area. You can check for these trainings using the keywork "ethics" (and then click on "view list") on our event calendar

We here at WaterOperator.org are interested in finding more about how to support ethical conduct at small systems - not just for board members or government officials, but for everyone involved in producing or cleaning water in the interest of public health. See our ethics checklist above for ideas about how to support ethical behavior at your water system, and let us know if you have additional ideas.