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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: What It Takes To Replace A Lead Service Line

Featured Video: What It Takes To Replace A Lead Service Line

Whether your utility is considering, or actually implementing, a lead service line replacement program, this 5-minute video can help you visualize the process involved. Join Water Distribution Supervisor Mark Schweiter, from the City of Galesburg, IL, in the trenches (literally!) to learn, step-by-step, what it takes to replace a lead service line.

This video can also be shared with homeowners, local officials, community groups and other stakeholders to achieve a common understanding of the equipment, personnel, labor and costs associated with replacing lead pipes. To find out more about the City of Galesburg's Lead Service Line Replacement program, including infographics, location maps and factsheets, click here.

The Problem With PFCs

The Problem With PFCs
There certainly has been lots of buzz over the scope and extent of perfluorinated chemical (PFCs) contamination of drinking water lately. A Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA water contaminant data found 65 water utilities in 24 states and territories had at least one sample that came back above the threshold for these chemicals. Altogether, these utilities serve more than six million people. According to one Center for Disease Control official, the presence and concentrations of these chemicals is "one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades."

So what do we know about PFCs, then? PFCs are a family of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of products such as textiles, packaging, and cleaning products and are also additives in coating/plating processes. One of their most significant uses has been as a compound in firefighting foams used to put out jet fuel fires. In fact, most of the communities dealing with this contamination are ones that rely on groundwater and are located near military installations or airports.

Although scientists are still studying the link between PFCs and certain health issues, some research suggests that exposure to these chemical compounds can cause cancer, and/or liver, thyroid, pancreatic, kidney and fertility problems, among other things. Moreover, PFCs are stable in the environment and resist degradation, allowing them to seep out of underground storage tanks and build up in the bodies of animals and humans. 

While the U.S. EPA has issued health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFCs in drinking water, it is still evaluating health effects before taking any further action. These advisories are designed to provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing water systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect people. But just exactly who will pay for these actions, or how the money will be located in the first place, is undetermined. The Seattle suburb of Issaquah, WA, for example, has already paid $1 million to install filters on its wells, and unless income can be generated from legal claims, this will certainly affect their customers' water bills. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, bipartisan legislation that will help expedite the analysis of PFCs, and provide resources to states dealing with the health challenges posed by these potentially harmful substances. And last week, the President signed H.R. 2810 which includes an amendment for a nationwide health study to be conducted by the CDC on the implications for PFCs in drinking water. In addition, some states, such as Michigan, are creating multi-agency response efforts to address this rapidly evolving public health issue. 

If you need more information about PFCs, a good place to start is this EPA website or video. In addition, EPA has published a new fact sheet entitled “Protecting Public Health & Addressing PFAS Chemicals,” to provide basic information to the general public. And the AWWA has its own fact sheet on the prevalence and assessment of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water, as well as this listing of resources for identifying and managing PFCs.  

Study Investigates Water Affordability

Study Investigates Water Affordability
A recent National Science Foundation study on water affordability found that roughly 13.8 million U.S. households could not afford to pay their water bill in 2014. The study found that while access to water has remained relatively affordable until recently, water rates have increased around 41 percent in just the past seven years. Should the rate hikes continue at this pace, according to the report, more than one-third of all U.S. households—35.6 percent—will be unable to afford running water by 2022.

One American city, Philadelphia, has taken measures to address this challenge through a new program—the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). Enrollees' monthly water bills are not based on consumption but rather set as a percentage of  household income and size. Eligible households are provided with water conservation education along with free leak detection tests and low-flow plumbing fixtures. 

Using data collected from income-based gas & electric utility programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado, consultants are predicting that Philadelphia's water department will see a net gain in revenue as a result of lowering the rates and increasing compliance. Perhaps this new approach can be a model for others to follow in addressing a widening water affordability gap.

Interested in assessing affordability at your utility? Here is an easy-to-use Excel tool courtesy of UNC Environmental Finance Center to assess the relative affordability of water & wastewater rates using multiple metrics. Interested in learning more about customer assistance programs (CAPs), how to fund them, legal hurdles and their expanding importance? Listen to this podcast featuring Stacey Isaac Berahzer from The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (EFC). 

Responding to Cold Weather Main Breaks

Recent extreme cold weather has affected a large numbers of private and public water lines across the country, resulting in low pressure, main breaks and water service disruptions, including this one at New York's JFK airport.  During the cold snap over the 2018 New Year's holiday, the St. Louis region alone had to deal with 60 breaks per day, with more than 40 crews out at a time. 

Responding to these events, both the dramatic and the more "invisible" ones, can be particularly challenging and can put utility staff at risk. Here are some resources that can help when frigid weather causes trouble: 

  • USEPA's Extreme Cold and Winter Storms Incident Action Checklist
  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Intro to Small System Systems chapter section on methods for thawing out frozen water lines (p. 181).
  • Of course, prevention is the best cure, so here is Indiana AWWA's updated winterizing checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town the next time around. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Need a good public education tool to explain the water main break repair process to the general public? Check out this video from the city of Midland, Michigan showing how water distribution crews handle main breaks during the cold winter months. And here is another example from the city of Arlington, VA.

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?

Does Drinking Water Lead to Happiness?
The challenges of operating and maintaining a small system water treatment plant can be overwhelming, especially these days, but it is always good to know that your efforts are paying off - and not only because your system is meeting compliance. There is another important contribution you are making to the community as well: the water you help provide can actually make people happy.

How can we tell? According a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, drinking water has a significant impact on our mood. The researchers found that not drinking enough water was associated with negative mood, including fatigue and confusion, compared to those who drank enough water. 

But is isn't just the quantity that matters - the quality is important as well. Recently, author Dan Buettner teamed up with Gallup’s social scientists to develop an index that assesses measurable expressions of happiness and identifies where Americans are living their best lives. The results of this index are the subject of Buettner's new book, The Blue Zones of HappinessAmong the surprises Buettner turned up while conducting his research: “There’s a strong correlation between quality of water and happiness." 

In fact, according to OECD Better Life Index, water quality satisfaction leads to higher overall sense of well-being. The United States, for example, does fairly well in terms of water quality, as 84% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, higher than the OECD country average measurement of 81%. And this important measure seems to be shared by all high scoring nations. Cheers! 

Pipe Wars

Pipe Wars
Did you know there's a battle going on under our feet? A recent New York Times article unearths the lobbying war between two powerful industries, plastic and iron, over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.

To be sure, pipe material selection can be a complex process. Piping material choices can be influenced by a whole host of factors such as geography, soil characteristics, flow capacity needed, system pressures and more. Some utilities use a single type of piping, while others may use a wide variety depending on specific sites and needs. Moreover, municipal and utility leaders must then navigate through budget constraints and marketing hype as manufacturers fight for a piece of the infrastructure pie.

It is no wonder that operators may need more information before making piping decisions. This webinar video from the Water Research Foundation about the State of the Science of Plastic Pipe provides case studies of how different utilities choose piping materials. The researchers involved in this report found that one of the most important considerations when choosing piping material is overall life cycle cost. 

Don't forget that there may be unique considerations to include in the decision-making process. For example, last month Bruce Macler from USEPA Region 9 wrote to us to let us know that "an interesting outcome of the recent California wildfires was that plastic water & sewer lines melted in some areas."  Who would have thought?

Interested in a no-nonsense listing of pros and cons of available piping materials? Check out this article.

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer

EPA’s Arsenic Rule Results in Fewer Incidents of Cancer
A recent New York Times article reports that the EPA’s revised rule on arsenic contamination in public drinking water systems has resulted in fewer lung, bladder and skin cancers. This finding, published last month in Lancet Public Health journal, is the result of a study that compared the urinary arsenic levels of over 14,000 people in 2003, before the new rule went into effect, to those in 2014, well after the rule had been fully implemented. The researchers found a 17 percent reduction in arsenic levels in this time period and they estimate that this reduction has resulted in 200-900 fewer lung and bladder cancers and 50 few skin cancers annually.

This finding is reassuring to water systems that have spent time, money and effort on arsenic rule compliance – it is always good to know that regulations are truly making a difference in the lives of community members.

It also highlights the importance of water systems, and especially those with groundwater sources, working with their local and state officials to determine the best way to test for arsenic and, if necessary, treat their water supply.  And because two water systems with similar levels of arsenic in their source water often need two entirely different types of treatment technology, and because these technologies can be expensive, knowledge about arsenic compliance, treatment and funding sources is essential.

Luckily, WaterOperator.org can help point you in the right direction when you choose "arsenic" as the category in our document database. A good first stop is also this EPA webpage which offers lots of resources and tools to operators, such as a rule summary and steps to take towards compliance.

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

Make no mistake about it, small town utilities can represent a lucrative investment for private companies who are offering cash-strapped officials across the nation a way out of their water woes. A recent article in the Washington Post is taking a long look at how municipalities are dealing with urgently needed repairs to their water infrastructure, sometimes by offloading the burden to for-profit water companies. According to the article, investor-owned companies bought 48 water and sewer utilities in 2015, 53 systems in 2016, and 23 more through March of this year (figures from Bluefield Research).

Yet the decision to sell can come at a great cost - literally. When a private company takes over a water system, decisions on rate increases are taken out of the hands of local officials and instead decided or monitored by a state utilities regulator. "What can initially seem like a great deal" says Bolingbrook, Illinois Mayor Roger Claar in this 2016 Better Government Association article, can turn quickly sour: “The reality is [these communities] get rate increases like they never imagined.” And there are other drawbacks as well.

Ask the residents of Charlestown, Indiana who are currently in the crossfire of their town's controversial move to sell their water system to Indiana American Water Company, a deal which will significantly raise their water rates. A community group called NOW (No Outsourcing Water) is actively opposing the sale, and has filed a complaint with the state's utility regulatory commission, calling into question their mayor's motives.

Indeed, loss of public accountability can be a result when towns sell utilities. With publically-owned systems, if public officials do not respond to public concerns about the water, they can be voted out of office in the next election cycle. But when a utility is sold, it no longer has to answer to voters for contamination problems, or for rate increases for that matter. In the meantime, the water system in Charlestown still suffers from excessive manganese which turns the water brown.

Although the nation-wide percentage of privately-owned water utilities is still rather small (12%), 30-70% of water utilities in Indiana and 14 other states have gone private according to the Washington Post article. Why are so many of these towns then willing to sell?

Well, for one, private water companies have the capital to invest in infrastructure and meeting water quality regulations. Simply stated, these companies are in a better position to fix problems created by a history of funding shortages. These water company acquisitions can free up towns to use their limited funds to hire and retain critical police/fire and other staff and make much-needed repairs to roads and more. So unless state and federal funding can keep up with the acute need for expensive water infrastructure improvements (which, according to this article, it hasn't -  and in fact has been decreasing), there often is no place to turn for budget-crunched public officials looking to protect public health.

But this is not happening across the board. While some small towns are considering selling, groups like Food & Water Watch are actually seeing a reversal of the private water trend especially among larger municipalities - They have compiled the water rates of the 500 largest community water systems in the country (the largest water rate survey of its kind in the country) and found that there is an ongoing nationwide trend toward public ownership of water systems.

All the same, the key finding of this report is that of the 12% of water companies that do operate privately, most are located in small, rural communities. So who wins and who loses? Each situation is unique, and for many small towns, the answers do not come easily.

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

Question: What do the following small system programs have in common? 

  • A small system electronic asset mapping project in Nevada
  • Free consolidation assessments and facilitations in Texas
  • New equipment to help with energy efficiency audits in Utah
  • A licensed operator internship program in New Jersey

Answer: They were all funded with Drinking Water State Revolving Fund set-asides.

While there are many critical infrastructure needs the DWSRF program addresses across the nation, sometimes valuable non-infrastructure opportunities such as these can get lost in the shuffle. A new analysis from the EPA is helping shine a light on the wide variety of capacity-development projects funded via set-asides that have been implemented across the country. Taking a look at this analysis is particularly helpful if state-level decision-makers need ideas about how to use set-aside funding, or have questions about set-aside funding in general. 

Using data from state DWSRF plans and capacity development reports, the analysis can help answer these needs and questions. It shows that states are using set-aside funding in the following nine (9) areas: Training and Technical Assistance, Financial Management and Rate Studies, Source Water Protection, Program Implementation (Capacity Development), Water and Energy Efficiency, Partnerships, Data Management, and Emerging Contaminants. What is important to note here is that there is a large amount of flexibility inherent in the program, which is a great thing when you are looking for ways to support important capacity-building programs in your own backyard.

  

What exactly is a set-aside fund? According to the EPA, set-asides are portion of each state's annual capitalization grant that support water system capacity, operator certification, source water protection, and training/technical assistance to PWSs. Set-aside funding cannot be used for water system infrastructure projects. Instead, the set-asides support "activities necessary to ensure safe and affordable drinking water by: (1) providing states with flexible tools to assist water systems with training, technical assistance and pre-construction activities; and (2) extending and enhancing the impact of DWSRF funding by ensuring that water systems have the technical, managerial and financial capacity to obtain a loan and to effectively maintain their resources." States can take up to approximately 31 percent of their capitalization grant for set-aside funding. 

Each state can develop its own funding balance between infrastructure and non-infrastruture DWSRF loans, and this balance can change year-to-year. Finally, states should review their Public Water Supply System Program priorities on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of set-aside usage. Happy planning! 

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location
Water operator salaries and wages depend largely on where operators live and work, according to statistics released by the US Department of Labor last year. And even when operators live in the same state or region, salaries can vary depending on if the operator works in or close to a major metropolitan area. Certainly according to these statistics, small town water operator salaries are not competing with those offered by larger metropolitan areas. While top salaries can approach the $70K - $90K range at some metropolitan utilities on the West Coast, top salaries in rural or non-metropolitan areas in the same areas are $10K- $20K less. And then there are larger regional differences as well. Top-paying states such as California, Connecticut, Nevada, Washington and Alaska all offer annual mean salaries over $50K while in many southern states (such as Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky) the average salary range is $25K - $40K. If you are interested in finding out where your state ranks, you can click here

Other interesting geographic statistics and trends can be found on this Data USA website and includes the area of the country with the highest concentration of water/wastewater operators (Arkansas!) as well as areas with the highest paying operator jobs. If you are interested in finding out detailed salary information for your specific state, including current and projected employment numbers, concentration data, area profiles and more, check out this informative site