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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Free Board Training Offered for Missouri Utilities

Being on the board at your water utility can be a daunting task. Many small water utilities face a host of managerial challenges, including inadequate revenue, deteriorating infrastructure, and difficulty finding and securing a qualified operator. In addition, small towns can make conflict of interest cases and other infringements on board ethics difficult to avoid. In recognition of these challenges, many TA providers around the country have started offering board training and support in addition to their operator resources. One organization offering free training for boards and councils in their state is Missouri Rural Water Association.

MRWA is offering free 2-hour evening trainings for water boards and councils designed to be presented during or prior to a regularly scheduled board/council meeting. These trainings cover two to three management topics from a list including board/council member responsibilities; how to conduct an effective meeting; Sunshine Law; water system basics; utility rates and finances; conflict of interest/ethics; project financing; and asset management. In addition to these short trainings, MRWA will also offer 1-day, 6-hour courses intended to satisfy the requirements for water district board members to receive attendance fees for board meetings a per RSMo 247.

If your water utility board or council in the state of Missouri would like to schedule a MRWA training session, please contact Liz Grove at 573-231-6797 or by email.

If you think your board would benefit from management training but you don’t live in Missouri, you have a few options. You can check out our event calendar, and filter by your state and one of our management categories (Asset Management, Financial Management, or Utility Management). Or you can check with the TA providers in your area, including the state Rural Water Association and your RCAP region.

SRF Could Help Illinois Water Reuse Project

When the Cronus fertilizer plant slated to be built near Tuscola, Illinois is fully operational, much of their water will come from the Urbana-Champaign Sanitation District (UCSD) roughly 20 miles north. UCSD has agreed to pipe over 6 million gallons of effluent to the plant everyday for industrial uses. We sat down with UCSD director Rick Manner last fall to discuss the project and what it will mean for UCSD operations. 

Tell us a little about UCSD.

We treat the sewage from the cities of Urbana and Champaign and the villages of Savoy and Bondville. About 10 percent of our customers are in the unincorporated areas around Champaign and Urbana.

In a typical day in normal weather, we discharge about 22 million gallons of sewage. About two-thirds of that comes out of our plant in northeast Urbana, which flows into the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork River and ultimately into the Vermillion and Ohio rivers. Over in southwest Champaign, about a third of our water comes out of our Southwest Plant. That goes into the Copper Slough, which flows into the Kaskaskia and then the Mississippi River.

In extreme drought conditions, we are down to a total of about 12 million gallons a day, with about three-quarters from our Northeast Plant and one quarter from our Southwest Plant.

That said, our sewers are actually going to be rearranged a little in the near future. Right now, there are a lot of tall buildings being built on campus, and those sewers that they are discharging to are getting the challenge of 20-story buildings where there was previously a mom-and-pop business or a two-story building. It’s actually producing a good deal of burden on those sewers, so we will be rearranging some of our flows within the sewers. We’ll be diverting flows from the Northeast Plant and pushing it over to our Southwest Plant. So, even in times of drought, we will be at about a 60/40 split.

We need to do this to deal with our own sewer issues. But it so happens that it helps in regards to Cronus. The Southwest Plant is closer to them, and that is where they are going to be getting their water from. So, an increase in flow at the Southwest Plant ends up coming at a fortuitous time for them because they are looking to buy some of our effluent from that Southwest Plant.

Why are they interested in buying the effluent?

Cronus Fertilizer is proposing to build just west of Tuscola. Contemporary fertilizer manufactures use natural gas as a primary ingredient, and with that natural gas, there is a lot of energy coming into the process. So, they end up evaporating a lot of water just to keep their equipment cool. If they didn’t do that, the temperature would increase too much and they wouldn’t get the results they want. Overall, they are looking at buying 6.3 million gallons a day of our treated effluent. Of that, about 80 percent will be boiled away and evaporated and the remaining 20 percent will still be discharged and have to meet discharge limits.

They could be using water from other sources, but they approached us about the idea of reusing our effluent, which is water already coming out of the Mahomet Aquifer. This way the water will get a second use—reuse, if you will—down in Tuscola. And Cronus doesn’t have to draw new water out of the aquifer. That is the advantage of reusing effluent.

How would the effluent be transported, and who is responsible for that infrastructure?

Champaign and Tuscola are 20 miles apart, but it happens that our treatment plant and their proposed fertilizer plant are literally north and south relative to each other. So, they are looking at building a 20-mile, 2 ft-diameter pipe that would connect up our treatment plant to their fertilizer plant. They would design, build, and operate that pipeline.

The reason Cronus is in this situation is somewhat interesting. They are proposing to build the fertilizer plant in Tuscola because there are two or three large natural gas pipelines that cross there. But Tuscola doesn’t have a very good water supply. They are not on top of the aquifer anymore. They get their drinking water from a pipeline from the Champaign-Urbana area—from the Bondville wells of Illinois American Water. But the drinking water pipe is not large enough to handle a 6-million-gallon-a-day increase. So, they would be looking at a new pipe either way.  

What changes will UCSD have to make at the plant to move water through the pipeline?

We will need to put in some good size pumps that could pump the water 20 miles south down to Tuscola. That’s the first big infrastructure exclusively for the benefit of Cronus. But we would get reimbursed for that. We get more than reimbursed for that. That’s one of the reasons we are interested in doing this. Not only does it help protect the aquifer, but the payments that Cronus is proposing would help our bottom line.

When we were looking into this scenario, one of the things we became acutely aware of is that there is great sensitivity to not going to zero discharge, even in times of drought. Our rate payers and our board and everybody who commented would like to see some continuing flow to the creeks. To accommodate that, we are building a storage lagoon at our Southwest Plant. The storage lagoon would fill up when there is a lot of rain and moisture in the spring and then would be there holding our final effluent in quantity in case of a drought like we had in 2012.

That lagoon would be another bit of infrastructure that USCD would look into building that would benefit Cronus. Again, though, we would be compensated for that construction project. But in the long run, that is something the sanitation district will benefit from. We know that Champaign and Savoy are growing towards the southwest, so we know the flows are going to be increasing there. When that lagoon is no longer needed to get us through a drought while still meeting Cronus’s demand, we would use it to store influent instead. The lagoon would be turned into what we call an equalization basin, which would allow us to store high volumes of flow so that we don’t have to treat it that same day. We could treat it when our flows are more reasonable. My successor, or my successor’s successor, is going to benefit from that lagoon being built. 

Check back here for part two of our interview to learn about how the State Revolving Loan Fund features in this story and how the district determined the market value of their effluent. 

Operator Math Part 3: Continuous Education

This is the third and final installment of our operator math series, and we’re closing with an eye to the future. When the exams are done and you’re thrown back into the stress of daily operations, it’s easy for math skills to get a little rusty.

Here are some great videos, blog series, and more to help you test and strengthen your knowledge of commonly—and not so commonly—used formulas and functions. And many of these resources can also double as exam prep, making them something you can turn to again and again.

Beginner Skills Check

Pinpoint your math weak spots with these five sample problems designed to test your familiarity with unit conversions, and calculations related to area, volume, flow rate, chlorine dosage, and pressure. Developed by the engineering firm Souder, Miller & Associates, this skills check also includes an answer sheet.

 

Problem of the Day

Wastewater Technology Trainers gives you a keep your skills sharp and review at your own pace with their Problem of the Day blog series. Each problem is provided in the form of a downloadable document containing a page or two about working in the wastewater treatment industry followed by the sample problem. Although each of the documents appear similar at first, you’ll find the problems generally begin on the second or third page following a schedule of problems provided on earlier dates. 

Indigo Water Group Math Videos

This series of 13 videos walks through the procedures for solving common water or wastewater math problems. Viewers are able to learn how to solve problems in a step-wise process by following along with the video, which demonstrates and explains each step. The series contains three unit conversion tutorials, five geometry tutorials, three dosing tutorials, one that calculates pump run time to reduce MLSS concentration, and one that calculates VSS loading rate to an anaerobic digester.

CAwastewater.org Math Videos

These 19 HD-quality videos were created by operators for operators. They provide instruction, examples, and advice on math topics covered by the Grads 1-5 exams offered in California.

Big Books of Math Problem Generator

Also from Indigo Water Group, this tool gives you a new set of problems with every click. Each set is provided as an Excel spreadsheet, allowing you to easily work through the solutions at your own pace. Click on the “Math Problem Generator” link at the bottom of the page.

 

Skills Builder

This webpage allows you to test your knowledge of wastewater and laboratory topics using Skills Builder—a set of quizzes provided by WEF as a free resource for operator education. The quizzes incorporate math, safety, and a variety of other topics. Skills Builder provides feedback on your answers as well as references for follow-up study sources. Results are completely confidential and are not recorded. 

 

Industry groups and not-for-profits, including our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, also regularly host operator math training courses and webinars. Learn about these and other training opportunities with our Event Calendar.   

Operator Math Part 2: Online Tools and Apps

Last week, we shared a few basic tips to help you master some of the calculations used in day-to-day operations. Understanding these and other functions and formulas is an integral part of the job, but working through the problems can be intimidating. Fortunately, there is a large bank of online tools and apps geared toward water and wastewater professionals that puts solutions literally at your fingertips. 

Of course, mobile technology is fast-moving and new tools are being released almost daily. Here are just a few of the ones available at no cost right now.

Online tools

From the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection:

From the Missouri Rural Water Association:

Device apps

From the Missouri Rural Water Association:  

From Georg Fischer AG:

From Thermo Fisher Scientific:

  • Process Water Products – Apple

From Hydromantis ESS, Inc.:

From Pipeflowcalculation.com:

  • Pipe Diameter Calculator – Android

From Fleming Training Center:  

Be sure to check back here next week for the last post in our operator math series. We’ll have resources to help you keep your calculation skills sharp.

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.

Operator Math Part 1: Practical Guidelines

Mathematical calculations can be a challenge for even for the most veteran of water and wastewater operators. The formulas for volume, chemical dosage, filtration, pipe velocity, and other daily problems vary of course, but there are a few underlying guidelines that can help you make sure your answer is correct regardless of the calculation you’re working on. 

This is the first in a three-part series dedicated to operator math. The tips below are adapted from information provided by the South Dakota Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.

  1. Learn what a formula means, not just when it is used. This will help you remember when to use πR2H to calculate the volume of a cylinder instead of 2πRH—the formula for measuring the surface area of a cylinder’s sides.
  2. Use unit labels throughout your calculation to help you easily see whether you need to multiply or divide.
  3. Always convert percentages to decimals.
  4. Convert “inches” to “feet” unless you’re trying to solve a pressure problem. Using “inches” in any other problem will almost always leave you with the wrong answer.
  5. Make sure the units you end with match the problem you are trying to solve. If a volume calculation results in a “square feet” or “square yards” answer, something went wrong along the way.
  6. Trust your suspicions. If the answer doesn’t seem right, check that you used the right formula and units before running the problem again.

For those looking for more detailed and specific instruction, our documents database is a great place to start. Here are some of the resources you’ll find if you search “math.”

Basic Math Handbook

This 24-page handbook is a basic math study tool. It provides formulas for basic geometry, velocity & flow rates, and pressure, force & head, and contains several typical water problems that show users how to apply the formulas in real-world scenarios. 

Formula and Conversion Sheet for Drinking Water Treatment and Distribution

This 1 page document provides conversions and formulas for water treatment & distribution operators in studying for a certification exam. 

 

Chlorine Contact Time Calculations

This 7-page document provides guidelines on how to solve math problems that deal with calculating chlorine contact time. It includes important equations and practice problems with solutions. 

 

Industrial Math Formulas

This 7-page document provides a list of valuable formulas and conversion factors important for wastewater operators. 

 

Intermediate Water Math

This 37-page study guide contains 82 intermediate water math questions. Solutions to the problems are provided at the end of the document. 

 

Advanced Wastewater Math

This 29-page study guide contains 35 advanced wastewater math questions. Solutions to the problems are provided at the end of the document. 

Welcome to WaterOperator.org

For a number of years, we struggled with an identity crisis. SmallWaterSupply.org was difficult to remember.

I’ve been to countless meetings where I show the site to someone and five minutes later they cannot remember the URL. It just doesn’t roll off your tongue. And in the online world, you want things to be as easy to remember as possible.

It happened so many times, it became sort of a running joke.

The final straw for me was sitting in a room of 200 people and listening to at least three people in a row butcher the name of our website. It was not their fault though. It was our fault and we're ready to make it right.

We are proud to announce that SmallWaterSupply.org has become WaterOperator.org. We believe this change will address many of the issues we faced in gaining traction as an invaluable web portal, though there is of course still work to do!

Why WaterOperator.org?  When we first began to consider this change, I had been working with WEF on some projects and learned how they were planning to go away from the word “wastewater operator”. Their logic was that both drinking water and wastewater operators are treating water, just some are doing so before the tap and some are doing it after. I totally agreed. And let's face it, for many small systems, they are on both.

We were shocked that WaterOperator.org was an available URL, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What you'll find is that most of our features remain, but are just wrapped in a pretty new package. Our flagship tools, the event calendar and document database, made the journey successfully and are now mobile-responsive along with the rest of the site.

It's not perfect yet, but we're getting there. We're developing new help videos to offer visitors a tour as well as upgrading our resource databases on operator training programs and tribal partner contacts.

There are a lot of people here at the Illinois Water Survey and Illinois Water Resources Center that deserve the credit for this transition. My one contribution was insisting that the Paw Paw, Michigan water tower remain on the home page. (I'm sort of old school in that regard.)

I hope you like the changes we've made thus far. We're open to hearing any feedback you may have as we continue to improve new WaterOperator.org and make it your home on the web.

Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need

In a previous post, we shared tips to help you lay the groundwork for a successful rate approval process. The strategies focused on gaining public support for your operations as a whole so customers understand its value when it came time to ask for additional funds. Following these will help you gain community buy-in, but how you present a rate increase proposal will still play a vital role in ensuring you have the rates you need. 

Here are a few things to remember while you are developing your communication strategy:

  • Timing is key. Community events, especially elections, can have a significant influence on the success of an increase.
  • Anticipating customer concerns and providing answers to questions about the need for the increase, cost efficiency, and how the change will affect individuals up front can do a lot to misunderstandings and foster public support.
  • Whether you're talking to a customers or the board, your messages should be succinct and consistent. Statements like, "Water reliability is at risk due to the need to upgrade the distribution system," clearly convey what is at stake and what actions can be taken.
  • Your local media can be a beneficial partner in utility communication, particularly if you have taken steps to cultivate a relationship.
  • Working with community stakeholders like environmental groups, industries, and even neighboring utilities can lend credibility to your messages and create champions for the rate adjustment. 

For more suggestions, read this report from an expert panel discussion at the 2014 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference.

Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process

It’s a problem faced by nearly every small system: your existing budget won’t cover the cost of new capital projects or even routine O&M. Raising water rates is no simple task, but there are strategies you can use to gain community buy-in.

We’ll share more tips for rate-specific communication in a later post. For now, let’s talk about what you can do to lay the groundwork. It is hard to ask customers for more money if they do not know and understand the value that you provide. The first step to gaining public support of a rate increase is to gain that support for your operations as a whole. 

Here are a few easy ways to boost your public image and set the stage for an effective push for a rate increase: 

  • Stop being invisible. Bad news—line breaks, sewer spills, etc.—have a way of getting out. If that is all your customers know about you, they won’t be eager to see their water bills go up. Sharing good news and helping the public and media put bad news in context will foster greater trust in your system and staff.
  • Keep them informed. Whether you’re responding to an emergency or conducting routine repairs that interrupt customer’s daily lives, you can keep the customer on your side by communicating with them often. Tell them what has happened, what you plan to do, and how they can get answers to their questions. 
  • Know your product. It’s not the water. It’s the service you offer customers so they can go about daily life. They will remember their interactions with your employees and how you helped them when you bring up a rate increase later.  
  • Heed the warning signs. Watch how your customers react to what you say and do. It’s much harder to mend broken relationships than to maintain them.
  • Show your appreciation. Consider hosting customer appreciation days or sending holiday cards to strengthen relationships with your customers. 

For more tips, check out this presentation from the 2014 American Water Works Association Annual Conference and Exposition. 

Winterizing for Consumers and Small Water Systems

Here in central Illinois, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the trees are starting to turn. For those of us living in colder climates, the time is coming for us to batten down the hatches and prepare for winter’s snow, ice, and cold. Recently, one such forward-thinking operator asked us for information on winterizing service lines. After a little searching, here’s some guidance we found for him and for anyone else preparing their system for winter cold.

Winterizing for Water Systems

For operators looking to prepare their systems for winter, the Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems Using Ground Water (developed by the U.S. EPA and adapted by the Massachusetts DEP) provides month-by-month guidance on routine maintenance procedures that can help keep a system in top running condition. Search the document using the keyword “winter” to find relevant maintenance cards. The Indiana Section of the AWWA also has a winterizing checklist. See page 8 of this newsletter for their helpful tips and hints for water operators.

Consumer Information: Winterizing Plumbing and Thawing Frozen Pipes

Of course, operators are not the only ones facing the problem of inadequately winterized or frozen pipes. Consumers often need extra guidance in properly preparing their homes for cold weather, or in dealing with frozen pipes as they occur. Some resources for consumer information include:
  • RCAP’s consumer information flier on winterizing tips for around the house,
  • the Red Cross’s information page on winterizing pipes, and safely thawing pipes that have frozen,
  • this video by a real estate agent showing how to properly drain outside spigots for the winter,
  • and this video by a building contractor in Boulder, Colorado, which includes tips for turning off water to the house in the event of a burst pipe, ways of regulating temperatures so pipes don’t freeze in the first place, and advice on safely thawing pipes when they do freeze.

To see how other utilities have handled consumer information on winterizing pipes on their websites, see the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (for colder climates) and the Macon Water Authority (for climates with relatively mild winters, where the ground seldom freezes deeper than two inches). Though there may be contact information or policy information specific to these utilities on these pages, both provide thorough, accessible information to frequently asked consumer questions.

Are there other great winterizing resources that should be highlighted here? Tell us in the comments!