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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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! 

Featured Videos: Water and You: The Water Treatment Process

Featured Videos: Water and You: The Water Treatment Process
Need to give a presentation at a school? Have a nephew or niece or a kid of your own who wants to understand what you do all day? Sure, operating a drinking water plant involves a lot of carefully-executed technical processes and meticulous monitoring. But sometimes you need to explain the fun, simple version of your job.

This week's featured video can help. This 4-and-a-half minute video follows Splashy the water droplet from his home in a reservoir through a surface water treatment system. At the end, he's disinfected with ozone and ready to drink. If you have a surface water treatment plant, this could be a great way to introduce your younger customers to the work you do.



For more water utility videos for young viewers, see our previous blog entry on Freddy the Fish.

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

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

NASA's SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite provides worldwide soil moisture readings every 2-3 days. This data is invaluable to scientists, engineers, and local decision makers alike, improving flood prediction and drought monitoring. To see some of the images it has produced in the past, go here.

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

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities
As winter gets underway, many of communities are thinking about energy costs and energy savings. Utilities will recognize these concerns as well. Did you know 30-40% of a municipality's energy budget is spent on the treatment of drinking water and wastewater? Chances are someone at your utility has been made aware. With energy costs rising everywhere, it doesn't hurt to save money where you can and perform an energy audit at your utility.

This 7-and-a-half minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) doesn't go into the details of a full energy audit. But it does outline several areas where energy audits often find opportunities for savings. It can be a great way to introduce water boards, mayors, and other decision-makers to the benefits of energy audits. And even without being a full audit, it might give you some good ideas for your utility. Though the video highlights wastewater treatment facilities, most of the tips could be easily applied to drinking water utilities as well.

Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're interested in getting an energy audit for your utility, RCAP staff are able to carry out energy audits for both water and wastewater utilities. To find the RCAP partner that serves your region, check their website.

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! 

Featured Video: The Importance of an Operator

For Thanksgiving approaches, we want to take time to give thanks for the water operators who help ensure we have safe, delicious drinking water this holiday season.

As the employee(s) who handle technical operations at the utility, operators are probably the most important people to the overall operation of your system. They provide one of the most valuable services to Americans: they deliver the water that keeps us alive and treat our wastewater in order to protect the environment we live in. They keep us supplied with a necessity of life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

This video explains the operational and legal importance of operators to a water utility, and features working water operators discussing what they love about the job. It can provide great insight into the field for water utility board members, or high school or community college students who are considering joining the profession.

The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water Systems from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're a water or wastewater operator and reading our blog, thanks! We're grateful for your hard work toward making our communities a healthy and enjoyable place to live.

Featured Video: Serious Play

Featured Video: Serious Play
If you have kids, you might be very familiar with the shapes and structures that can be built out of Lego blocks. Even if you don't have kids, you might be about to get a healthy dose of kids' building supplies over the holidays, as parents try to keep their kids out from underfoot. But did you know those building supplies could be used to explain complex concepts to your customers?

In this video, a conservation nonprofit demonstrates how they used colored building blocks to explain possible remediation strategies for polluted sediment in the Lower Duwamish Waterway in Seattle. Even if you're not facing this specific situation, look for ideas on how simple toys like these can be used to explain complex concepts to your board, city council, or customers. After all, everyone loves to play, don't they?



For more on communicating complex concepts to people without expertise, check out our past blog entry on Communicating Science. And if you've found a particularly effective strategy for communicating difficult water utility concepts to your board or community members, let us know!