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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: Clean Water Is So Close for Tulare County's Tooleville

Featured Video: Clean Water Is So Close for Tulare County's Tooleville

Tooleville, a rural community in the San Joaquin Valley of California, lacks reliable access to safe drinking water. For over 10 years Tooleville has been working on a consolidation campaign with the neighboring city of Exeter to access clean water through a connection to their system. Like many rural towns in the area, Tooleville’s groundwater has been contaminated with nitrates, pesticides, and hexavalent chromium. Given the city’s financial limitations, meeting drinking water compliance and customer satisfaction has been precarious.

While hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) was evaluated under the third round of Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring (UCMR 3), there is currently no federal drinking water regulation. A regulation does exist for total chromium which includes all forms of chromium. The total chromium standard of 0.1 mg/L assumes that the chromium sample is composed entirely of its most toxic form, chromium-6, to safeguard against the greatest potential risk. In 2017 California withdrew the state standard of 0.01 mg/L of hexavalent chromium. Chromium-6 exposure through drinking water has been linked to cancer and skin reactions in some research studies.  

For nitrates the EPA has set both the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) and maximum contaminant level (MCL) at 10 mg/L. Consuming water above this level can cause methemoglobinemia in babies and other health conditions.

Though the town has met federal limits for nitrates and total chromium, its 2017 consumer confidence report indicates compliance issues with total coliform. Within the last year, the city of Exeter has agreed to evaluate the capacity of its own water treatment system to access the possibility of providing water to Tooleville. This recent progress offers hope to many residents who have pushed for consolidation. 

As negotiations move forward, two options have been identified. Exeter could use a master meter to bill monthly water use while Tooleville continues to operate its own system. Alternatively, Exeter could consolidate Tooleville’s system entirely. Regardless of the option, Exeter will require new infrastructure to make the connection possible. For now Tooleville must wait for an evaluation to be completed. Once Exeter has a better understanding of their system capacity, the final decision will be left in the hands of the Exeter City Administrator and City Council.

Solving the Rural Water Crisis

Solving the Rural Water Crisis
Every fall, Americans from all walks of life and locations drive through the countryside to enjoy the changing foliage, apple orchards and park-lands, often barely glancing at the small water or wastewater utilities along the roadsides that serve area residents. Yet if they took the effort to speak to the people who are struggling, often at great odds, to provide or clean water in these rural areas, they might begin to understand that even in this country, with all its resources and technological advances, there are many places — just around the bend — where clean water is not a given. In fact, according to this recent article, of the 5,000 drinking water systems that racked up health-based violations in 2015, more than 50 percent were systems that serve 500 people or fewer. 

The challenges of these small rural systems are many: aging infrastructure (add to this a lack of overflow capacity for wastewater systems), water quality issues, comparatively lower water operator wages, increasing man-made and natural disaster hazards such as extreme rain events, stricter health standards, a small pool of paying customers, and, always, a lack of funding. The new infrastructure bill just recently signed by the president is providing some hope for the future (it has a significant catch, though — its authorizations still require yearly appropriations installments), but for now, many communities live in a constant state of worry about their water.

On top of this, many rural communities are dealing with the political and economic pressure to sell their utilities to private companies, if they haven't already done so, a particularly tempting option in times of crisis. According to a recent special series on the rural water crisis from NPR, this "complicated mix of public and private ownership often confounds efforts to mandate improvements or levy penalties, even if customers complain of poor water quality or mismanagement."

But there is hope on the horizon. Certainly increased funding for infrastructure is part of the solution. But according to California water commissioner Maria Herrera in this recent article, more can be done. She suggests that legislation should also increase technical assistance funding and give communities an opportunity to hire consultants to develop shovel-ready projects and fund safe drinking water projects. Also on her wish list: "We need to not only fund mitigation of contaminated wells and treatment plants, but also help communities develop redundant water sources, promote consolidation of small systems to larger ones, and help them with drought contingency planning. Communities need guidance and technical assistance in order to develop solutions and participate in water planning."

In Louisiana, circuit rider Timmy Lemoine says in this article that he is "seeing a shift as small systems allow larger systems with a certified operator take over management." And at the University of Iowa, engineers are testing new wastewater treatment technologies, hoping to defray costs for aging small-town systems. In addition, organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) have a wealth of resources to support rural utilities and help them save money, such as this energy efficiency video. The question remains if solutions such as these will be sufficient to ensure that rural residents can count on clean water now and into the future. 

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.