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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

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

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

2017 was a great year for the WaterOperator.org newsletter team. We not only reached our 200th edition milestone this past fall, but we also were successful in connecting a significant number of water professionals with useful and relevant resources, resources that could be used on-the-spot to solve pressing issues, or help guide utility best practices, or help water decision-makers plan ahead for their communities. 

While many of the events, articles and resources featured in our newsletters garnered interest, here is a list of our most clicked-on resources of 2017.

Did you use one these resources at your utility this year? If so, we'd love to hear from you! Do you have a favorite "go-to" resource to share? Again, we'd love to know! Our email is info@wateropertor.org , or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter

Winterizing for Water Utilities

Winterizing for Water Utilities

A few years back, we featured a Winterizing Checklist for Water Utilities from the Indiana Section of the AWWA on this blog. As the weather turns colder once again, it's probably a good idea to review their updated checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this hot-off-the-press article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Preparing for winter weather can be as simple as making sure workers have warm work clothes, but it also means that every precaution should be taken to keep excess ice off your water tower, which can be not so simple at times. And being prepared means taking a look at all aspects of your operation: hydrants, wells/pumping equipment, storage tanks, backflow, emergency preparedness, trucks/backhoes/equipment, worker needs and emergency stock items. 

Wastewater treatment plants have unique winterizing needs. Bacteria critical to the treatment process can slow down, resulting in elevated BOD and COD levels in the effluent. So, keeping bacteria warm and cozy might mean adding additional chemicals or cold weather formulations of hardy cold-resistant bacteria. And did we mention snow? Check out this presentation on how one Maine wastewater treatment plant prepares for winter. They should know! 

Finally, we all know about the neighbors who went away on vacation in the wintertime, only to return to a house with burst water pipes. You can help your community members avoid this and other winter-related mishaps by sharing this video or fact sheet. Stay warm and safe this winter! 

What's That Smell? Eliminating Wastewater Treatment Odors

What's That Smell? Eliminating Wastewater Treatment Odors

With all this talk about public awareness of hidden water system infrastructure, it is important to point out that there are times when public awareness is definitely NOT on your side. And one of those times is when there is a stink that just doesn't go away.

Odors are generated from every phase of wastewater management including collection, treatment, and disposal, and they can cause all sorts of public relations issues, putting pressure on an utility to resolve the problem in a timely way. Certainly, managing odors is one of the most important - and yet most challenging - aspects of wastewater treatment. 

Why so challenging? Because in part there are many odor control technologies available but no single ideal solution. Some systems, like this Brownsville Public Utilities Board plant in Texas, solve odor problems by placing covers over wastewater tanks and channels and then blowing the smelly hydrogen sulfide gas through a biological tower. Others such as this Bridgeport, CN Water Pollution Control Authority plant, capture odorous offgas with coated fabric covers and treat it with a carbon system. Still others use a combination of  different measures, such as activated sludge diffusion, carbon adsorber sytems, pump station chemical feed systems, coverings and plant operation modifications. 

But fixes like these don't come easily, or cheaply. And sometimes, the problem is even more complex. Consider this story of a system in Saline, MI that has been the subject of neighbor complaints for years. Even after odor studies and abatement work, the smell just keeps getting worse. 

How can a smaller system then, with its limited funding and manpower, address odor problems effectively? The cheapest way to control odors is at their source, according to this Science Daily article, but sometimes that is simply not possible. Fortunately, researchers from the University of British Columbia may have recently developed a solution

Many wastewater facilities use anaerobic digestion, but is is expensive to acquire and maintain the associated odor control and biogas safety equipment needed. A much more cost-effective way to mitigate odors, these UBC researchers have discovered, is to revisit metal salts treatment. Simply adding new combinations of these common commercial metal salts during the fermentation process dramatically improves offensive odors, and also improves their ability for remove water from digested sludge. It is these unique doses/formulas and point of addition during the fermentation process that really amplifies the effectiveness of this new approach. Moreover, the cost of adopting their technique is minimal, so smaller systems can afford to test it out. 

In the meantime, if you need a quick primer on odor generation and management, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) has a 7-page factsheet explaining the problem and outlining advantages and disadvantages of various mitigation strategies. 

You can also keep an eye out for odor events right here on WaterOperator.org. For example, this Iowa training later in the month troubleshoots lagoon odor issues. Just type "odor" in the keyword search box on the event calendar page

Want to brainstorm with other wastewater professionals? Attend WEF's Odors and Air Pollutants Conference 2018 in Portland, Oregon in March, 2018. With sessions ranging from "Optimizing Hydrogen Peroxide Dosing" to "Odor Control Scrubber System Planning and Design," there will be many opportunities to learn in-depth solutions to any smelly situation. 

It's Alive! Spooky Sewer Creatures and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant

It's Alive! Spooky Sewer Creatures and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant

Every water system has its stories  whether a particularly forceful water main break or sewage overflow, an unwelcome water tower visitor, or a “worse day ever” inside the treatment plant.

This Halloween season, we thought we would share some of the spookiest water operator videos and news stories we have come across, all with one thing in common: they really happened! (Because we all know that truth is scarier than fiction.)

Let’s start with a quick video and resource about a rare, but certainly not unprecedented, hazard. Hopefully, you will never encounter this slow-moving fleshy blob in your wastewater treatment plant or collection system, but just in case you do, you can thank this blog for warning you!  

No, it isn't an alien from another planet. This nightmare blockage is nothing but a nest of tubifex worms. Along with red worms, blood worms and midge flies, these worms are a normal and occasional nuisance to waterwaster operators, as they can clog filters and eat good bacteria. Although it isn't easy to get rid of them, this website offers hope. 

Speaking of blobs, earlier this year a water utility worker fell off a water main and found himself stuck in a blobby, muddy trench. The more he moved, the more stuck he got. Luckily for him, his nightmare didn't last long  fellow workers quickly came to the rescue, using their knowledge of trenching and excavation safety principles.

One thing is for sure: strange encounters are never far away when you work in the water business. In fact, sometimes spooky creatures are as close as the microscope slides in your lab.

Wastewater plants in particular house microbiological zoos of the strangest kind. But don't worry about what you can't see, because these creepy-crawly microorganisms are really the good guys at treatment plants. The predatory suctoria, for example, uses its spines to suck out the nutrient-rich cytoplasm of organisms it has speared, aiding in breaking down and removing nutrients and organic matter. Or the mysterious Tardigrade (aka water bear) seen below in this video whose appearance usually indicates good BOD degradation. Water bears can survive in outer space, extreme radioactive environments and high temperatures, making them one of the "toughest animals on earth".

In addition to strange creatures, strange happenings can also be part of the day-to-day life of a water operator. This Wessler Engineering blog post entitled "Is Your Wastewater Treatment Plant Haunted? describes an acoustic phenomenon known as "water hammer" that can occur inside the walls of a home as pipe fluids suddenly stop or change direction. This same thing can occur at the treatment plant when automated solenoid valves abruptly open or close, causing a sudden loud boom or knocking. It would be enough to make any night-shift operator jump! 

Finally, we leave you with a story that is sure to give you the shivers. Recent hurricane flooding in Houston has jarred many manhole covers out of place (more than 65, in fact), and somehow a man fell into a pit that feeds underground sewer lines carrying residential wastewater. After over a week underground, the man was finally discovered by utility workers who were nearby making repairs and heard a disembodied voice crying, "I am here, I am here!". After tossing the man snacks from their lunches, rescuers were able to haul the man to the surface. Thankfully this story has a happy ending, but be sure to watch where you are walking this Halloween. 

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.