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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Tribal Resources from WaterOperator.org and USEPA

At WaterOperator.org we recognize that small tribally-owned and operated public water systems often face unique challenges, beyond what impacts other small and rural communities. Because of this, we have created a number of ways to find information that is specific to tribes. This video provides an overview of our document and event databases, tribal newsletter, tribal assistance provider list, and the tribal contact manager.



For a sampling of documents we’ve collected in our document database, here are some of the USEPA documents we’ve found are particularly relevant for tribes.

For tribal drinking water systems:

For tribal wastewater systems:

And for tribes concerned about protecting their source water:

Check out the video for more on the resources we collect and offer, and if there’s a tribal resource you think we really need to know about, tell us in the comments!

Common Treatment Deficiencies

This article was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Spigot News, the Ohio EPA's drinking water program newsletter. Many thanks for allowing us to republish it! You may also be interested in the article Common Source Water Deficiencies.

Ohio EPA conducts sanitary surveys at least once every three years at community public water systems (PWS) and once every five years at non-community PWSs. The purpose of a sanitary survey is to evaluate and document the capability of a water system’s source, treatment, storage, distribution, operation and maintenance, and management. Each of these may favorably or adversely impact the ability of the system to reliably produce and distribute water that meets drinking water standards. 

This article is the second installment in a series of articles to help small water systems identify the most common problems found during a sanitary survey or other investigatory site visit conducted by Ohio EPA staff. The first article focused on source water (well) deficiencies. This article will focus on some of the more common treatment equipment deficiencies which are found during inspections of small water systems.  Future articles in this series will cover distribution deficiencies and other topics. 

Backwash discharge lines: If you have a softener or a pressure filter, you backwash your equipment to clean and replenish the media. The waste that is produced when you backwash discharges into a floor drain or another pipe, which carries the waste to where it will be treated.  If the pipe carrying the backwash wastewater from your treatment equipment is too close to, or even inserted into, the drain or pipe that carries the waste to treatment (see Figure 1), you could end up with back-siphonage.

This could occur if the pipe carrying the waste to treatment backs up and the wastewater is siphoned back into your drinking water treatment equipment, contaminating your treatment equipment with whatever waste the pipe is carrying. Solution: Ensure there is a sufficient air gap between the backwash waste pipe and the floor drain or the pipe conveying the waste to treatment to prevent backsiphonage (see Figure 2). 

Softener tanks, cover, and salt: Softener brine tanks should be kept in sanitary condition. The brine solution should be kept free of dirt and insects. Solution: The best way to accomplish this is to completely cover the brine tanks with an appropriately fitting lid. The lid should not be over- or under-sized and should be kept in place on top of the tank. Also, the brine tank should not be overfilled such that the lid does not fit snug on the tank (see Figure 3).

All substances, including salt, added to the drinking water in a public water system must conform to standards of the “American National Standards Institute/National Sanitation Foundation” (ANSI/NSF).  This is to ensure it is a quality product that will not introduce contaminants into the drinking water. Solution: Ensure the ANSI or NSF symbol can be located on the bags of salt you use or ensure your salt supplier can provide you with documentation from the salt manufacturer that it is ANSI or NSF certified. 

Cartridge filters: Over time, cartridge filters will become clogged with iron or other minerals from your source water. When clogged, the filters become a breeding ground for bacteria. Solution: Ensure filters are replaced in accordance with the manufacturers’ specifications or even more often, depending on the quality of your source water.


General maintenance:
 Water treatment equipment should be accessible and cleaning solutions and other non-drinking water chemicals and materials should be kept away from the equipment. If treatment equipment is not accessible for Ohio EPA staff to inspect during a sanitary survey, it will not be accessible to the water treatment operator for routine maintenance or during an emergency. Likewise, non-drinking water chemicals stored in close proximity to treatment equipment can be an invitation for a mix-up or, even worse, intentional vandalism (see Figure 4). Solution: Keep clutter and non-drinking water chemicals and equipment away from drinking water treatment equipment. Preferably, these items should be stored in a different room.


Developing A Better Understanding of Drinking Water Technology Approval: WINSSS Center Project B1

When EPA in 2014 chose to fund the National Centers for Innovation in Small Drinking Water Systems, their vision for the Centers was much more than developing new drinking water technologies; they asked them to also consider facilitating acceptance of both new and existing technologies, improving relationships between stakeholders, fostering dialogue among regulators, and facilitating the development of uniform data collection approaches for new technologies. All of the non-treatment pieces of the vision have been incorporated into the WINSSS Center’s Project B1.

Project B1 has three objectives:

  1. Conduct a survey of the states to determine the barriers and data needs for technology acceptance.
  2. Develop a states workgroup and use the survey results as a starting point to discuss how to overcome those barriers and develop a set of uniform data needs.
  3. Take the workgroup results and apply them to the New England states to work toward multi-state acceptance.

The first objective has been completed, and the workgroup called for in the second has been meeting every other month since December.

Recognizing the importance of state buy-in to the project, the PI’s proposed to include the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) as a partner in the survey implementation at the proposal stage. They have been a great partner, and the success of this project is a reflection of their involvement. It was also clear early on  that both Centers had proposed work related to developing a better understanding of acceptance of technologies, so we joined forces. It proved instrumental in the development of the questions, and there were at least eight participants from WINSSS, ASDWA, and DeRISK, that had a hand in the question development.

The survey included 16 questions asking states about their approach to technology acceptance, their experiences with new technologies, barriers to getting these technologies to small systems, data needs for acceptance of any new technology, and their interest in participating in our effort. Forty  states responded, again thanks to ASDWA’s involvement, and the data were telling. We learned that many states don’t consider new technologies for small systems because of cost and risk and that states generally struggle with having the staff and technical expertise to understand and approve new technologies. The most common barriers were a lack of staff and staff time to approve technologies, adequate performance data from vendors, funding for testing/evaluation, and training for state staff.

We asked the states to tell us what questions they needed answered to approve a technology, and over half of the states listed performance data to support the technology, pilot data from multiple locations or water qualities, residuals produced, third party certification and understanding of where technology is appropriate, and understanding the operator skills needed to operate the technology. They also listed the data deficiencies they see most often. These included range of water qualities tested, length of pilot testing, scale of pilot testing, and operating costs, among others.

The good news is that 11 of 14 “emerging” technologies provided to the states in the survey have already been implemented in at least 10 states. This suggests that more technologies are in use than we initially believed and for some technologies, better sharing and communication mechanisms between states are the most immediate needs.

We also asked states how they used the data from EPA’s Environmental Technology Verification Program (ETV) and Arsenic Demonstration Program in accepting new technologies. Nineteen states said they rely on ETV certification or testing protocols as part of their process. Fifteen states said that the Arsenic Demo Program influenced their decisions related to the tested technologies. These programs no longer exist, but they provide valuable insight into how we might consider developing a new program to support the states for sharing data and communicating technology approval information.

The last part of the survey focused on technology acceptance and asked the states if they would be interested in sharing data, developing common standards with neighboring states, or partnering with nearby states to coordinate technology approval. Six states did not answer this question, but 33 of the 34 who did were at least somewhat interested in developing a data sharing network. Twenty-eight states were also interested in developing common standards with nearby states, and 23 were interested in developing partnerships with nearby states to approve technologies. These are very encouraging results.

The survey data were shared with the states, and a workgroup of Centers, ASDWA, and state staffs was formed. The first meeting was in December 2015, and much progress has been made since. The workgroup has developed a draft framework for an entity that would support a shared data repository. They are currently developing a plan/proposal to share with the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council board (ITRC) to consider how this entity might work with or within the existing ITRC framework. No decisions on this have been made and the workgroup is evaluating options. An open call to all industry stakeholders is planned for late July or early August to share progress to date and to get feedback.

There are no illusions that this can all be accomplished in a short time; the issues and barriers related to technology acceptance have been discussed within the industry for more than 25 years. But this project has created buzz within the industry, as well as with the states and USEPA. It has momentum, and the idea of developing a consensus approach for sharing data and fostering cooperation among all stakeholders that both supports the states need to protect public health and makes it easier for technologies to be accepted by states is now being discussed among all of the relevant players.

Common Source Water Deficiencies

This article was first published in the Winter 2011 issue of Spigot News, the Ohio EPA's drinking water program newsletter. Many thanks for allowing us to republish it!

Ohio EPA conducts sanitary surveys once every three years at community public water systems (PWSs) and once every five years at noncommunity PWSs. The purpose of a sanitary survey is to evaluate and document the capability of a water system’s source, treatment, storage, distribution, operation and maintenance, and management; these all may adversely impact the ability of the system to reliably produce and distribute water that meets drinking water standards.  

This article covers the sanitary survey or other investigatory site visits conducted at the water source and concentrates on the most common deficiencies found during the visit of small PWSs. Even though the article focuses on small systems, similar deficiencies can be found at larger public water systems. Future articles will cover treatment, distribution and other topics. 

There are common deficiencies surveyors hope not to find when conducting a sanitary survey, or when following up on complaint investigations or responding to total coliform bacteria positive sample results. Figures 1 and 2 show poor water sources and figure 3 shows an acceptable water source. Figure 1 shows a well equipped with a sanitary seal which is missing bolts. It also shows that the casing is flush or in line with the finished grade, and the electrical wire and raw water line are exposed and unprotected. Although the well is vented, it does not have a screened vent. The well is also not protected from surface water runoff, other contaminants or critters. 

Figure 2 shows a public water system well located in a parking lot. The well cap is missing bolts and therefore is not properly secured to the top of the well casing. There is also a depression surrounding the casing. If rainwater pools near the well, it can seep down along the casing and negatively impact the ground water and its quality. Located to the left of the well are bags of sodium chloride, which increases the potential for rust at the base of the well. Also, there is not enough protection around the well to prevent damage from motorized vehicles to the casing or electrical conduit.  

Although you can’t see this in the picture, the well has a 1988 approved “National Sanitation Foundation” (NSF) well cap but it is not a “Water System Council” PAS-97 (or Pitless Adapter Standard, 1997) approved cap as required. The PAS-97 cap provides a properly screened vent which is not present in this cap. 

Figure 3 shows an acceptable water source. The well casing extends approximately 24 inches above finished grade, which is beyond what is required (at least 12 inches above finished grade). The finished grade is sloped to drain surface water away from the well.  The approved well cap fits flush over the top of the casing and electrical conduit; it provides a tight seal against the casing and prevents the entrance of water, dirt, animals, insects or other foreign matter. The well is also properly protected with concrete filled posts to protect it from motorized vehicles and mowers. 


Educate Decision Makers With Help From RCAP

Google “drinking water” or “wastewater,” and you’re sure to find a growing list of news articles about lead safety concerns, the recent PFOA and PFOS advisory, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and our crumbling infrastructure. The weight and fervor of these public discussions may concern some who grapple to protect our drinking water and environment. But increased attention has its benefits. It could mean your board members and other community decision makers would be more receptive to learning about your operations and operational needs. And that’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Last year, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership released two video series designed to help leaders in small, rural communities make more informed decisions about drinking water and wastewater operations, maintenance, and expansion. Each video spends roughly 2-4 minutes walking the audience through a different technical step in the drinking water or wastewater treatment process. Click on the links below to watch the videos.

Wastewater Treatment

  1. Introduction
  2. Collection system
  3. Preliminary treatment
  4. Primary treatment
  5. Secondary treatment
  6. Solids and sludge handling
  7. Effluent disinfection
  8. Effluent disposal

Drinking Water Systems

  1. Introduction
  2. Raw water intake
  3. Pre-settlement and pre-treatment
  4. Static mixers and flash chambers
  5. Sedimentation and filtration
  6. Distribution systems

Beyond these series, sharing the RCAP video The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water System with your governing body will provide insight into the day-to-day work of an operator and the importance of that role.  

Click here to browse these videos in a playlist.

To find more videos from RCAP and other technical assistance providers, visit our Documents Database and click Videos in the Type category. And subscribe to the WaterOperator.org newsletter to get featured videos and other resources sent straight to your inbox.  

Tools for Transient Public Water Systems

 

Does your truck stop, restaurant, or campsite supply water to customers from a well or other privately-owned water source? If so, you’re what I.S. EPA calls a transient noncommunity public water system. And you’re not alone.  Every business and organization across the country that serves at least 25 people—not necessarily the same people—for at least 60 days out of the year is a TNC and must comply with Safe Drinking Water Act regulations and any requirements set by the local primacy agency. 

Getting and staying in compliance can be complicated, but your state’s primacy agency and your local technical assistance providers are there to help. If you aren’t able to confidently answer any of the questions below, you should consider reaching out for guidance to ensure you are providing safe water.

  • Is your system’s water source approved for public consumption?
  • Are you required to have a licensed operator?
  • Do you know what chemicals you’re required to sample and how frequently?
  • Are you up-to-date on your sampling requirements?
  • Do you know what type of treatment is best for your source water?
  • Do your tanks, pipes, and pumps align with state capacity and flow rate rules?
  • Do you have—and are following—an operations and maintenance plan that aligns with state and federal requirements?
  • Are all other required manuals and plans up-to-date and stored in a safe location? This may include engineering plans and maps, an emergency response plan, and evidence of compliance with EPA risk management requirements.
  • Do you have an organized record of all operation and maintenance activities?

You can also find more information on many of these and other small system concerns through our documents database. This short video tutorial can help you get started. 

Starting Off on the Right Foot: Basic Seasonal System Startup

As summer draws near a lot of small, seasonal water system operators are showing up, blowing off the cobwebs, and getting the show on the road. Every state has slightly different regulations and requirements for small system startup, and it’s important to know what your state requires. The Revised Total Coliform Rule requires seasonal systems to certify that they've completed state-approved startup and sampling procedures, so be sure to check anything we say here against your state's guidance. Having said that, it doesn't hurt to have a few reminders as you work through your startup routine. Here, we summarize the most common considerations for small seasonal system startup.

Inspect

The first thing you need to do is inspect your system. Even if everything was ship-shape when you closed your system down, life has happened while you were away. There could be storm damage, animals could have gotten into your well house or your well, or Murphy’s Law could have paid your system a visit. Each system is slightly different and will need to be checked for slightly different things. The Connecticut Department of Public Health has a great guidance document with detailed instructions for inspecting and repairing drilled wells with the wellhead at the surface or in a pit, old dug wells, and well houses or pump houses.

Regardless of your well construction, here are a few basic inspection tips to keep in mind:

  1. Clear the area around your well head. Remove trash, brush, debris, and any other potential sources of contamination to at least the recommended setback distance around your well. Make sure to store chemicals (including pesticides, fertilizer, gasoline, etc.) in another location away from your wellhead. If you have a generator, make sure that it has backup containment for possible fuel spills. Make sure the ground is sloped so that water can’t puddle up around your well.
  2. Remove any animals from inside the well, including bugs and spiders, which can introduce bacteria to the well. Bugs and spiders can be removed with a shop vac. Replace the sanitary seal or repair the dug well cover so that animals cannot enter the well.
  3. Any system component that has a vent should also have a secure vent screen, and the vent opening should point downward. Make sure the vents are clear and unobstructed.
  4. Check your wiring, conduits, and electrical systems to make sure that they’re in good shape. This is important with any form of well construction, but pay particular attention in a well house or pump house, as rodents like to live in these structures and may damage your wiring. If there are rodents living in your well house, be sure to clear them out.
  5. If you have a chlorinator, properly dispose of your old chlorine and purchase new. Make sure that your chlorine residual test kit is working properly, is properly calibrated, and the reagents are not expired. Inspect the chlorinator itself to make sure that it is in working order.
  6. Storage and pressure tanks will need to be drained, any sediment removed, and disinfected. Storage tanks may need to be re-lined or otherwise repaired before they can be used. This is particularly true if they have never been serviced before. These repairs are best done by a professional. If you choose to re-line a tank yourself, make sure to have proper safety and ventilation equipment in place before you begin.

Turn it on

Once you’ve gotten a good look at your system and done any preliminary repairs, it’s time to turn it on. Different states will have different requirements on what samples and readings need to be taken during this process; be sure you know what’s required where you’re working. Run water through the system by opening hydrants, blow-offs, and faucets. Check that your pressure tank is maintaining correct pressure and the pressure relief valve is working properly. Check the pressure throughout your system. Walk your distribution lines to make sure they are not exposed or leaking. (Leaking distribution pipes, in addition to wasting water, can also let bacteria into your system.) Chlorinate the system (we like this guide) and let it sit overnight or 24 hours. If your system has a water softener, high chlorine levels can damage the resin, so bypass the softener and disinfect it separately according to manufacturer instructions. Don't let anyone use the water during this time, both so that the chlorine has enough time to disinfect the pipes, and so that your users are not harmed by the highly chlorinated water.

Flush

Once the chlorine has had a good long time to work on the bacteria that grew while you were away, flush the highly chlorinated water out of your system. Don’t flush the water into the septic system. This will kill the good bacteria that help the septic system work. Also try to avoid vegetation and surface water that could be damaged by the chlorine.

Sample

This is the point where the Revised Total Coliform Rule sampling kicks in. Be sure to refer to your state's sampling requirements and your sample site plan in order to keep your system in compliance. Wait until you have the lab results back and have confirmed the water is safe to drink before you allow anyone to use the system for drinking water. If you chlorinate, this is also a good time to check that you have the correct chlorine residual in your system, and to adjust the chlorine feed if necessary.

If you’re concerned that your system may need additional water quality tests, don’t be afraid to request them! It’s always good to know what you’re dealing with.

Put your house in order

Though these are the basic steps to getting your system up and running, there is more that goes into running a seasonal system.

Valve exercising is an important part of distribution maintenance for any system. Take some time to systematically turn the valves in your system on and off as you’re bringing it online. Then you’ll know they’re working if an emergency comes up later in the season.

Backflow prevention is just as important in a small system as in a big one. Make sure your hose bibs all have vacuum breakers installed. If your system has RV sewer dump stations, make sure they’re isolated from the drinking water system by backflow assemblies (or that the water lines don’t reach the stations at all). Have a professional inspect any testable backflow assemblies you have on your system.

As you go through the process of starting up your system for the season, take some time to make sure your manuals and emergency contacts are up-to-date, your instruments are properly calibrated, and your chemicals are all up-to-date and properly stored. Taking some time to put your (well) house in order at the beginning of the season gives you a great starting point for the coming months of small system operation.

Good luck, and don’t forget to lock your pump house!

Collaboration Toolkit: Protecting Drinking Water Sources Through Agricultural Conservation Practices

As a small water system operator, the journey of supplying safe, clean water to consumers begins at the source. Source water protection is best approached through collaboration and can be enhanced with the use of voluntary conservation practices by local agricultural professionals. This is especially the case in regions where nitrate and phosphorus runoff from agricultural operations threaten source water quality.

Fortunately, the Source Water Collaborative (SWC) developed a simple six-step toolkit designed to facilitate collaboration between source water stakeholders (like you) and landowners through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs.

Step 1: Understand how key USDA conservation programs can help protect and improve sources of drinking water

In order to foster beneficial relationships for source water protection, it is important to understand what national, state, and local organizations can be of service to you. Two USDA sponsored organizations are highlighted in the toolkit: The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA). NRCS exists to provide technical and financial assistance to both landowners and operators for the enactment of voluntary conservation practices. FSA works to provide farm commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, loan, and price support programs. Having a working knowledge of specific programs, key contacts, and common vocabulary are vital first steps to take in your source water project.

Step 2: Define what your source water program can offer
Next you’ll need to understand NRCS and FSA programs and how they relate to specific operations and regulations in your state. This can be done quickly by browsing by location for NRCS state offices at nrcs.usda.gov and fsa.usda.gov. It’s important to note that the staff of these organizations are often the most aware of the regulatory structure of environmental programs, so be sure to make it known that you wish to work collaboratively. You should then focus on identifying what specific areas or projects collaboration with conservation practices could enhance. This is your opportunity to share valuable information such as source water data and GIS maps in order to identify potential water quality improvements.

Step 3: Take action

Step 3 of the collaborative toolkit focuses on making concrete moves to begin an action plan. It suggests you start by contacting your assistant state conservationist for programs. Be clear about your intentions to foster a partnership regarding source water concerns and NRCS programs that can be of assistance. Linked in the toolkit are initial talking points, a draft agenda for the first meeting, and key USDA documents to help you begin your first steps to action.

Step 4: Find resources
This is where you do your homework. Step 4 lists several links to very useful conservation and source water resources: A list of NRCS conservation programs, state drinking water programs, watershed projects, maps of nutrient loading, and much more. These resources will ensure you develop your project with the correct programs and people.

Step 5: Coordinate with other partners

This crucial step enables you to make sure that you are partnered with the people that will give your project the highest probability of success. The links listed in this step are for key partners who can bring data, technical capabilities, useful state and local perspectives, and other important stakeholders. These links include U.S. EPA regional source water protection contacts, state source water program contacts, state clean water programs, and other federal agencies that can make your efforts more productive.

Step 6: Communicate your success & stay up-to-date
Finally, share your source water protection experiences with SWC to facilitate improvements to the toolkit and promote the toolkit among water colleagues. 

Finding the right partners for voluntary, collaborative conservation practices is a progressive step for improved source water protection. By utilizing the resources and tips provided in the collaboration toolkit, you can put yourself in the best position to maximize your source water protection potential. Visit Source Water Collaborative for more information on any of your protection questions.

So You've Got a Website...Now What?

In an earlier post, we talked a little about the value of having a website—or webpage on a city site—to connect with rate payers. Getting the site up is one step, albeit a huge one. Now you face the challenge of driving traffic to the site or page. After all, the most informative site might as well not exist if no one knows it’s there.

Marketing a website may sound like a full time job, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a handful of things you can do to raise awareness and promote use without adding much to your already lengthy “to do” lists.

  • Add a teaser to your email signature. Something as simple as “Visit WaterOperator.org for more information” with a hyperlink is enough. Emails get forwarded, copied, and otherwise shared. You never know who may be reading and clicking.   
  • Create a bill insert informing rate payers about the site. If resources allow it, consider including refrigerator magnets or something similar with the url and your logo to serve as a more lasting reminder.
  • Share website information on your utility’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts. If you’re not active on social media—or even if you are—reach out to whoever runs the accounts for your city or town to let them know the site is available as a resource. Whatever you do, don’t forget to include the link.
  • Participate in Facebook groups and Google Plus communities. This is a particularly good strategy if your own social media accounts don’t have a lot of followers. Perhaps your community has a Facebook community for parents, university students, seniors, gardeners, or more. Ask to join these groups and start directing people to relevant information on road closures, water conservation, or whatever else the group may find useful.
  • Offer to write a guest post for a city or community blog. By including your website in the bio at the end of your post, you can draw in visitors from sources that may get more hits than your website.
  • Reach out to your local print and tv media and offer to talk about some of the resources available on the site. 
  • Start an email list. Email marketing is still one of the strongest ways to engage with the public. Chances are, you found this very blog post through one of our email newsletters. Once you have it, use your list to highlight whitepapers, videos, conservation tips, and utility news recipients can find on your site.

As you start marketing your site, be sure to share your successes, mishaps, and everything in between on Small Communities #TalkAboutWater. Your experiences could help another small system reach their rate payers more effectively and efficiently.  

Financial Accounting for Small Systems

This article originally appeared on the SmallWaterSupply.org blog in 2012 as part of the Water We Drink series, developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center. Written by Certified Public Accountant Hatsy Cutshall, its ideas and tips still hold true today.

A cascade of bad economic news since late 2008 has focused nearly every citizen’s concern on finance, certainly at home and often at the public level. Many who are struggling to pay their own bills are looking to municipal leaders and asking valid questions about how their tax money is being spent.

A water or wastewater system is often the single largest asset owned by a small community. Like a homeowner with his property, all the stakeholders of those systems are best served if that asset is well managed and maintained to get the longest and best use at the lowest cost to all concerned. It is imperative that the board and the system managers understand and appreciate the value of the financial aspect of running the system. With that understanding they are then prepared to address public questions and concerns to help them understand how and why many decisions are made.

Financial management is not just about depositing cash in the bank and paying the bills. When used as part of an effective overall management strategy, it helps managers plan for the future to avoid unpleasant surprises like a compliance order or the sudden and unplanned need for significant infrastructure replacement. It also prepares management to explain to the rate-paying constituents how the decisions are made that go into setting the rates that keep the system going.

Without sound financial information, it is easy for the public to make incorrect assumptions about how much it costs to provide safe, reliable drinking water. Often, the first target for public scrutiny is the staffing expense. In response, many small system managers and governing boards are tempted to short change the accounting and finance function in favor of technical staff. By doing so, they risk problems that could cost them far more in the long run than the salary or accounting fees they have opted to avoid.

Furthermore, when a system does face the need for additional investment or maintenance costs, managers will find that there is less money flowing overall, fewer grants, and more loans. Funders are imposing stricter reporting requirements on systems to prove their capacity to manage the money they're borrowing.

There has never been a better time for small systems to take a look at their financial management and make sure it can stand up to this heightened scrutiny. In doing so, they likely will also discover ways that their financial information can help them decide how to make better use of the income and other resources for which they are responsible.

To help system managers and board members form a strategy for improving their financial management, I've compiled some ideas for how to get started. I've had the good fortune to talk with a number of technical assistance providers and other consultants who work with small systems. They've highlighted some common situations that they find when they begin work with a small system, as well as solutions that can help resolve some difficult situations.

Ten Financial Accounting Tips for Water and Wastewater Systems

  1. Get organized! Before you can begin to create or improve a financial system you have to be able to find your expense bills, your receipts records, your bank statements, and your payroll records. Create a filing system and get your paper records in order so that when you need to refer to a document, you can find it easily. If many of your records are in electronic format, create an electronic filing system for those records, as well.
  2. Review and document the system's rules and policies for income, expenses, and setting aside reserves. Read the minutes of board meetings for policies that may need to be formalized into the operating procedures. Board members and management should consider policies for handling late payments, whether to apply for a credit card, and board policy for setting aside a percentage of all fee income for capital needs reserves, to name a few.
  3. Find the right person to do the accounting work. If the system has a staff member who can take on the work and is willing to learn, get him or her some training. If the system cannot afford or does not need even a part-time bookkeeper on staff, consider hiring a local bookkeeping or accounting firm to do this work on a contract basis. Ask if the contractor has staff members who are willing to attend board meetings to help managers and board members read and interpret the reports.
  4. Talk to some trusted and experienced advisors about the system's accounting needs before you buy software. Often small systems buy accounting packages that are far more expensive and complex than they really need. The accounting software must be able to track the water system's activity separate and apart from that of any other government activity. If the system is small enough (e.g. 50 to 100 connections) a simple Excel spreadsheet may be able to handle all the tracking and reporting you need. For larger systems or those that are ready for a more comprehensive solution, QuickBooks is affordable and can handle most, if not all, of the accounting functions that many small systems need.
  5. Build a budget. Start with the actual results of the prior year's operations and consider what is likely to change, as well as what the board and constituents wish to change and put it in writing. Once approved, enter this budget into the reporting system so that reports can compare the actual financial activity to what was expected. Comparing the two will help managers and constituents plan for the future.
  6. Find and file any records you can that show how much was paid for pipe, pumps, meters, and other system infrastructure. Identify what the system owns and adopt an asset management plan. This survey of the system's physical components then informs the financial planning and budgeting process to reduce the risk of unplanned expenditures. This summary of what the system owns and how much it cost will also give you the information you'll need to record the value of the system's fixed assets on the balance sheet as required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) 34 rule, which addresses financial reporting requirements for infrastructure assets.
  7. In addition to training the financial staff or hiring a bookkeeping firm, consider offering training for the system's board. Members of a utility's oversight board are often volunteers and may need assistance in making informed decisions and communicating the reasons for those decisions to the public. This type of training, as well as more generalized financial management training, is often offered through the state's primacy (drinking water or wastewater agency) as well as through non-profit organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).
  8. Make sure your accounting system can track and classify income by type such as fees for water service, hookup fees, late fees, and so forth. It should also provide reports on aged receivables: how much the system is owed and how much is overdue by 30, 60, 90 or more days.
  9. Classify expenses in such a way that a report reader can easily compare how money is being spent to the board's approved budget. Expense line items such as telephone, rent, electricity, salaries, supplies, and other routine costs should be created; as payments are made and entered into the system, those payments should be categorized according to their purpose. The system should also be able to provide a report on how much is owed to outside vendors and when those payments are due. This report is called an "accounts payable aging" report.
  10. Record financial activity in the system regularly and often, at least once per month. If you let bookkeeping work pile up for months at a time, it is very easy to forget information that is important to the financial reports, such as the purpose of an expenditure or to which fund is should be charged. Monthly (or more frequent) reporting also helps managers see problems in time to solve them before they become more expensive to solve.

Make the decision that financial management is as important as maintaining the plant and equipment. Whether you decide to do it to meet regulatory requirements, citizen demand, or management needs, it's a great idea!

For more information or for advice and help getting started, contact your region's RCAP office, the National Rural Water Association, or your state primacy agency that deals with drinking water or wastewater systems.

The author would like to thank the following people for their help and information in preparing this article: H.B Calvert, Karen Yates and Jan Frederick with the Midwest Assistance Program; Mary Fleming and Linda Martinez with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation; Karen Johnson and Cindy Navroli, MPA, CPA.

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