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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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!

Coliform Sampling Best Practices

Our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) have released a new instructional video on how to collect coliform samples.

"Coliform sampling is an important part of monitoring the water quality in all drinking water systems. Collecting coliform samples correctly is absolutely critical in protecting public health. Improper sampling is the most common reason for false positive results. Positive results, even false positives, require repeat sampling, which result in extra effort, time, and money. In this video, we will cover 13 steps to proper coliform sampling and discuss how to find a good sampling site."