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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: The Big Empty

Featured Video: The Big Empty

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face significant management and operational issues. O’Brien, Texas is just one of thousands of small communities in the United States that struggle to find the resources to ensure that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. Watch this documentary short produced by Tom Roseberg and Earth Institute fellow Madison Condon that details O'Brien's drinking water crisis. 

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

On a typical day at the plant, water and wastewater system personnel are challenged to do a lot with a little in the service of protecting and producing water for their community. Certainly one way staff members are demonstrating this resourcefulness has been in their adoption of energy efficient strategies and programs. 

Why is this important? Simply stated, saving energy can help small systems put their scarce resources towards what really matters: safe drinking water and clean wastewater discharge.  

According to Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Best Practices Guide for the Water and Wastewater Industry, additional benefits to water systems include improved control and treatment as well as shorter paybacks compared to other industries on capital costs for energy efficiency improvements. Of course, the amount of energy savings will vary depending on the type of system in use, the age and condition of the equipment/infrastructure and the capital available to implement major changes, if necessary. 

But even if you have little to no capital available to make improvements, energy savings are still very much possible! This resource from the U.S. Department of Energy, and this list from ORACWA, for example, list the many low or no-cost measures plants can take to save energy, and therefore, money. 

But before you start an energy savings programs, the EPA recommends that you conduct an energy audit or assessment of your system. Free tools for doing this can be found on the EPA's Energy Efficiency for Small Drinking Water Systems webpage, or you can view this webinar recording. In addition, the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP) staff across the United States may be able to carry out energy audits for drinking water and wastewater facilities. Find the contact information for your RCAP region at https://rcap.org/contact/.

The next step is to identify the easy targets. RCAP has an article (Five Things You Can Do To Save On Energy in Your Utility) and a video to help you do this. In addition, the EPA has a step-by-step presentation on energy self-sufficiency and the role new technologies can play to help you achieve this. 

Other resources include: 

Finally, here are some energy facts that might just surprise you! 

  • Over 90 percent of energy consumed in producing and delivering drinking water is used for pumping. (Check out this WRF resource on strategies to save $ during the pumping process)
  • 30 to 60 percent of a municipality’s energy budget is spent on the treatment of water and wastewater
  • According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, energy audits typically identify potential savings to the user of 10 to 40 percent, with 20 percent being the average.

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project
Water and wastewater systems can be some of a community's largest investments, so it is really important to get it right—decisions made in the early stages of infrastructure planning can impact a community for generations to come.

Community leaders are often tempted to let an outside consultant completely handle the project because they are worried they don't have the expertise to make the right decisions. However, it is important to stay actively involved so that the community’s voice is not lost and the project is appropriate, affordable, and supported by the public.

Certainly one of the most critical early-stage decisions in this process is who to hire as your engineer, the person who will be involved in nearly every aspect of the project from evaluating financing options, completing designs, obtaining permits, bidding the project, and the actual construction. And make no mistake, this hiring process can be a challenging task. Luckily, WaterOperator.org has a collection of resources to help you through. 

For example, this RCAP guide explains the steps that communities can take to gain control of the project-development process. It is a very detailed how-to and includes many pitfalls to avoid. It discusses securing funding, how to stay organized, and, how to hire an engineer. RCAP recommends following a QBS (qualification-based selection) process in order to choose an engineer whose strengths, experience and skills match your system's needs.

For more information regarding the QBS process, you can read this manual from Ohio Qualification Based Selection Coalition (while some of the information may be specific to Ohio, much of the process is similar regardless of the state). In addition, RCAP has a handy list of 10 tips to help communities hire an engineer.  

Other helpful resources in our library include Washington State DOH's guide for small public water systems on how to hire an engineer. Included in this guide are considerations regarding how to determine costs of services provided. Idaho's DEQ also has an engineer hiring guide that includes questions to ask during the interview. And this MAP guide emphasizes the importance of having a survey or analysis of the condition of your present system, as well as the problems a new project will address. This "Scope of Work", according to MAP, is perhaps the most important part of your Request for Proposals when searching for an engineer. 

A final, but valuable, piece of advice, repeated throughout these resources, is that selection should be based on demonstrated competence and qualifications and not on price for services rendered. In this way, you can ensure that the project will be a valued community asset for years to come. 

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

The Small Communities Environmental Infrastructure Group assists small Ohio communities in finding resources to help solve their infrastructure and funding problems. These two videos feature water and sewer district officials and staff discussing the benefits of participating in SCEIG regional partnerships in order to better serve their communities. 

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Just when you think you've seen it all, someone comes up with a crazy idea that holds some promise. This just might be true in the case of a local aquaculture businessman, who, along with a Kentucky State University researcher, looked at outdated wastewater treatment plants and source water reservoirs and envisioned profitable fish farms! 

This week's featured video explains how Steve Mims and Tim Parrott used a USDA grant a few years ago to turn decommissioned wastewater plants into working aquaculture farms using treated effluent in digester tanks and daphnia (as fish food) from upgraded facilities that are often just next door. The tanks don't generate waste because the water cycles right back to the treatment plant.  

His big idea? To establish regional fish hatcheries through public-private partnerships, with young fingerlings sold to local farmers to raise in their own ponds all the while adding commercial-level fish and caviar production to the rural economies of Kentucky. So add fish farming to all the creative ways to recycle wastewater that people have been coming up with recently!  

Pipe Wars

Pipe Wars
Did you know there's a battle going on under our feet? A recent New York Times article unearths the lobbying war between two powerful industries, plastic and iron, over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.

To be sure, pipe material selection can be a complex process. Piping material choices can be influenced by a whole host of factors such as geography, soil characteristics, flow capacity needed, system pressures and more. Some utilities use a single type of piping, while others may use a wide variety depending on specific sites and needs. Moreover, municipal and utility leaders must then navigate through budget constraints and marketing hype as manufacturers fight for a piece of the infrastructure pie.

It is no wonder that operators may need more information before making piping decisions. This webinar video from the Water Research Foundation about the State of the Science of Plastic Pipe provides case studies of how different utilities choose piping materials. The researchers involved in this report found that one of the most important considerations when choosing piping material is overall life cycle cost. 

Don't forget that there may be unique considerations to include in the decision-making process. For example, last month Bruce Macler from USEPA Region 9 wrote to us to let us know that "an interesting outcome of the recent California wildfires was that plastic water & sewer lines melted in some areas."  Who would have thought?

Interested in a no-nonsense listing of pros and cons of available piping materials? Check out this article.

Featured Video: Liquid Assets

Featured Video: Liquid Assets
Even if you're not into New Years' resolutions, the turn of the year can be a great time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. Though I don't really make New Years' resolutions, I do like to take this time to think about my goals and strategies for achieving them. Then instead of testing my willpower against a resolution, I can focus on taking a small step toward a goal or even just thanking the people who have helped me along the way. And while this is a great time for personal reflection, organizations can benefit from asking these questions as well.

A lot of questions facing water utilities are raised in this week's video. It covers a surprising number of topics in just 27 minutes, including crumbling underground infrastructure, the political factors that keep water rates too low to cover needed repairs, and the experiences of small, rural Minnesota communities grappling with infrastructure and sourcewater protection issues. Each issue is presented briefly but thoughtfully, with plenty of input from the local politicians and city officials who had to deal with these problems directly. Though the video was originally created for a PBS station in Minnesota, both drinking water and wastewater utilities from around the country will find a lot to agree with and consider for their own utilities.



For more on rate-setting for small utilities, check out the RCAP handbook Formulate Great Rates and the EFCN rate dashboards.

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.

Featured Video: Supplying Community Water

Featured Video: Supplying Community Water
Managing a rural utility can sometimes feel overwhelming and lonely. When you're the only ones in your community dealing with challenging infrastructure, bill collecting, and complicated accounting, it can feel like you're the only people on earth to face these issues. Add in the little quirks of a small rural community, and it can feel like no one could possibly understand what you're dealing with or what you're trying to accomplish.

The truth, though, is that the challenges facing rural communities are nothing new. This week's video is obviously several decades old at this point, but the issues facing the featured communities will probably sound familiar. From aging infrastructure to inadequate rate structures, these utility boards found ways to tackle issues that are still relevant today. Note that the Community Resource Group mentioned in the video recently changed their name to Communities Unlimited


 

Communities Unlimited is a regional partner of the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAP). To find the RCAP regional partner offering technical assistance in your area, check the regional map. You can also browse RCAP's handbooks for small utilities and utility boards by going to our document database and searching for the host Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the document type Manuals/Handbooks.

The issues facing your utility may be tough, but they're not unique. There are technical assistance providers and other utilities that have faced them before and found a way to make it work. We and our partners at RCAP want to provide you with the resources to do that too. And if your utility has come up with a particularly good solution to a problem, let us know!


Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates
If you're a utility manager or a member of a water utility board, there's a good chance you've had to deal with utility rates at some point. If not, there's an even better chance that a rate-setting conversation is in your future. As the nation's infrastructure ages, many communities are coming to terms with the fact that their utility rates have been too low to allow for replacement costs. Whether you've been forced into an expensive repair by a catastrophic failure or simply know a major piece of your infrastructure is living on borrowed time, you may have no choice but to consider a rate hike and other fundraising measures. But even if your position is not that dire, utility rates have to respond to many complex factors including inflation, fluctuations in number of customers, and changing water treatment standards.

If the whole thing sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has produced several resources to guide utilities through this process. Their handbook Formulate Great Rates provides guidance for small communities that need to conduct water system rate studies. They also recorded a 2-part companion webinar for the handbook, the first video of which is linked below. The webinars are presented by RCAP experts with experience in rate-setting and help explain some of the more challenging sections of the handbook. This first webinar is about half an hour long.


Formulate Great Rates: A webcast on setting rates in small-community utilities (Part 1) from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you need more help understanding the handbook, or need a hand with rate-setting in general, RCAP's regional partners offer technical assistance for rural communities. You might also want to check out the Environmental Finance Center's rate dashboards.