rss

WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination
In the weeks following the Santa Rosa, CA wildfires last October, city officials found elevated levels of benzene in water system samples taken from the nearly totally-razed Fountaingrove neighborhood. The first round of samples returned 4 results of over 500 parts per billion, with one of these at 918 parts per billion (MCL for benzene in drinking water is 1 part per billion). A second round of testing produced similar numbers over the MCL, without the higher spikes. A total of 145 samples have now shown elevated levels. 

According to this article in The Press Democrat, city officials, who for months have stressed that the contamination appeared isolated to the advisory area, were taken by surprise that six of those results were from outside the existing advisory area. 

With the help of a forensic chemist, who helped eliminate the possibility of petroleum leaks, the city now suspects that the most likely cause of contamination is heat damage to high-density polyethylene service lines or other plastic components (such as PVC) in the water or wastewater system. The city is enacting more extensive testing to find out if plastic laterals are responsible. Once the exact cause is identified, the city will consider solutions. Replacing the water system could cost over $20 million. 

Interested in finding out more about benzene contamination in drinking water supplies, including sampling methods, treatment strategies, and private well concerns? Check out this EPA website or this Oregon Health Authority factsheet. Another useful resource is this template (from North Carolina) to be used when high levels of Benzene need to be reported to the public . 

Featured Videos: Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems: Regulations, Installation, Maintenance and Inspection

Featured Videos: Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems: Regulations, Installation, Maintenance and Inspection

Nationwide, and in Colorado, improperly functioning onsite wastewater treatment systems pose a risk to drinking water supplies. These videos from Colorado Rural Water Association inform system owners about the regulations associated with onsite systems, how the systems function, and most importantly, how to maintain and inspect individual systems to protect water quality and the environment. 


Interested in getting under the hood and seeing how a septic system works from a homeowners perspective? While every system is different, they all have the same general parts and pieces. Learn about what goes where and why from Carla Ostberg of All Service Septic & CBO Inc. in this 6-minute video from Colorado Rural Water. 

The Disinfection By-Product Challenge

The Disinfection By-Product Challenge
Staying in compliance with Stage II DBP testing can be a challenge for many small systems. Moreover, when preventing DBP formation becomes a pressing need, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the range and cost of options out there, especially if you are trying to keep up with new technologies. Then there is the fact that solutions to DBP problems often involve several different actions or multiple steps, giving the situation an extra level of challenge. 

However, before planning a remediation strategy it might be valuable to initiate a DBP profile study - testing from the source water through the treatment process, and continuing into the distribution system. Why? Because, as Justin Spears in a recent H2Outlook (Kentucky Water & Wastewater Operator's Association) article found out, sometimes the problem isn't where you think it is!

According to his article, he was all set to add a mixer to his storage tank when results from his DBP profile study showed that most of his DBPs were forming in the plant's clearwell. His problem was at the treatment plant, not in the tank! In the end, Justin solved his DBP problem quickly by using chlorine dioxide, made on site by mixing chlorine gas, which he had already in place, with sodium chlorite. However, every treatment plant and source water is different, and what worked for him might not be the best for you. 

Interested in finding out more about options for DBP control? Check out this video or this website or this manual. In addition, you can choose Disinfection and Disinfection By-Products as a category in WaterOperator's document or event database to find all sorts of resources.  

Need a Roadtrip Idea? Check Out These Waterworks Museums

Need a Roadtrip Idea? Check Out These Waterworks Museums

 Are you fascinated by old steam-powered pumps and engines, or the stories that inspired ingenuity and invention in the water industry? Do you like cool old buildings? If the answer is "yes," then pack up your family and/or friends and take a road trip to one (or more) of the following waterworks museums! 

  • The Waterworks Museum, Boston, MA: This museum interprets unique stories of one of the country's first metropolitan water systems through exhibitions and educational programs on engineering, architecture, social history and public health. The centerpiece of the museum is its collection of original 3-story high coal-powered, steam-driven water pumps. Admission is free (donations accepted). 
  • The WaterWorks Museum, Louisville, KY: Located inside the west wing of Louisville Water Company's original Pumping Station No. 1, the WaterWorks Museum highlights Louisville Water’ Company's archive of historic photographs, films and memorabilia, some of which date back to 1860. Discover the company’s contributions to safe drinking water through its innovations in science and engineering. 
  • The Shreveport Water Works Museum, Shreveport, LA: This museum, a national historic landmark, is the last known steam-powered municipal water treatment plant in the US. It was also among the earliest facilities to use chlorine in the treatment process. Today, the entire physical plant (pumps, filters and other machinery) remains in place after more than 100 years of service and is a rare example of an intact steam water works. Best of all, admission is free!
  • Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia, PA: The Fairmount Water Works is a National Historic Landmark, a Civil Engineering Landmark, and a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and was designed and constructed to provide safe, clean drinking water to a city on the cusp of remarkable growth. This museum educates citizens regarding the interconnections between their community and environment, particularly the public’s essential role in protecting and stewarding our water and natural land resources. Cost: Free.
  • In the mood for overseas exploration? You might want to check out the Museum of Sewerage Science in Osaka, Japan (the third floor is dedicated entirely to advanced wastewater treatment technology), or this active steam-powered waterworks museum in Hereford, UK or these sewer museums in London, Paris, and Brussels!  

Featured Videos: Solids and Sludge Handling

Featured Videos: Solids and Sludge Handling

How are solids handled and sludge thickened in the wastewater process? Watch this RCAP video to find out how one wastewater plant uses a dissolved air flotation thickener to settle sludge out before the digestion process and then uses a centrifuges for de-watering.  

Need to simplify the process? Check out how this small wastewater plant in Ohio reduces the free water content of its sludge - all for under $300 out of pocket cost. 


Looking for more videos on the wastewater treatment process? RCAP offers a free 7-part video series to explain the technical steps in the process of treating wastewater. 

Energy Efficiency in Action

Energy Efficiency in Action
Small systems across the country are challenged to raise revenue in order to pay for the infrastructure and water treatment upgrades necessary to meet stricter water quality regulations. However, what if this revenue shortcoming could be made-up over time within a utility itself, sometimes without raising rates? Implementing an energy audit and then applying cost-efficient energy-saving strategies may be just the ticket.

An audit or self-assessment can help staff understand how their utility uses energy as well as the impact energy-intensive processes such as pumping and aeration has on overall usage. The EPA offers a range of tools available to help with this process, including an energy use assessment spreadsheet tool.

Once an audit is complete, utilities can develop a program to reduce energy costs. RCAP suggests focusing on these five areas: benchmarking, lighting systems, HVAC systems, pump efficiency and wastewater treatment. According to Ohio RCAP, potential energy-cost reductions can range from 6 to 62 percent, with an average of less than a 1-year simple payback for communities that are actively using energy audits and energy-reduction programs. 

It is always inspiring to learn about energy-saving strategies used by other systems. The wastewater plant in Copperas Cove, Texas, for example, installed new energy-efficient blowers, a modern aeration control scheme, finer screening at the headworks and a maintenance-friendly air diffusion system in order to cut their energy costs. Since their improvements, total average monthly energy costs at the plant have dropped by nearly 25%—from $22,000 per month to $16,000.

And this video shows how a utility in Evansville, IN was able to upgrade its wastewater plant without raising rates. In addition, the city became the first in the country to generate clean energy using FOG, or fats, oils and grease. 

A good way to brush up on how to operate efficient small utilities is by reviewing RCAPs planning and resource guide or the EPA's Strategies for Saving Energy at Public Water Systems or Florida Rural Water's Energy Reduction Techniques for Small and Medium Systems. In addition, this handbook from South Dakota DENR guides small systems step-by-step through the auditing process and explains how to develop an energy conservation program, identify and implement energy conservation measures (ECMs), and monitor the progress and success of the implementation program.

Free Resources for Non-Community Water Systems - Recording on June 6, 2018

Free Resources for Non-Community Water Systems - Recording on June 6, 2018

This webinar, recorded on June 6, 2018, introduces our free, 2-hour online course that helps owners and operators of non-community public water systems with a groundwater well better understand how to properly care for their water supply. The course curriculum includes the basic science of groundwater, well mechanics, and source water protection best practices. 

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs
It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example, Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.


Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still attending high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.

Serious Water Gaming

Serious Water Gaming
Interested in combining work with pleasure? Need a fun idea for a training session? Then take a look at this list of gaming opportunities (using the serious game approach) for water professionals.

Utility Management Simulation Game - free online game
Can you keep the utility from going bankrupt? Will service quality bring in more financial resources? What happens when your assumptions change? See how you would cope by playing the game

California Water Crisisboard game
This game introduces the politics of water and puts players in the driver’s seat as they take on drought. Participants assume the role of one of California’s three main regions — NorCal, SoCal and the Central Valley — all of which have different starting resources, strengths, weaknesses and strategies. Along the way, players are exposed to various challenges like special interest groups and population growth that reflect the real-world complexities involved with resolving an environmental crisis. 

The Groundwater Commons Game - free role-play Excel-assisted
Simulations of three major aquifer systems currently facing unsustainable demands—the Punjab (India/Pakistan), the Central Valley (USA), and the Murray-Darling Basin (Australia)—reveal tipping points where social norms and collective attitudes towards groundwater conservation shift abruptly with small changes in cultural values and enforcement provisions.  

The Best Dam Simulation Ever - free online game
This game will help you learn about the many uses of the Columbia River and how controlling the water behind the dams can affect each one.  

River Basin Balancerfree online game
This game developed by the Army Corps of Engineers offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin. 

Aqua Republica - free online game
While the world of Aqua Republica is fictitious, the challenges of sustainably managing a limited supply of water resources in a situation of growing demand between multiple users and uses are very much based on real life scenarios. Decisions involve developing urban infrastructure and agriculture based on water supply of the local river. 

Interested in how serious gaming can help water managers, utilities and other stakeholders resolve complex issues? Check out this article.

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Every season has its challenges for public works departments, and now that spring is just around the corner, it is pretty obvious that this past winter came with more than its fair share. Yet we are not in the clear quite yet, as this news story about two manhole explosions just a few weeks ago demonstrates. In fact, as winter winds down, accumulated road salt compounds corrode through underground electrical cables, causing sparks to ignite gases that can build up in confined spaces. With over 2,000 annual incidents in New York City alone, exploding manholes are not a joke: they can be dangerous, destructive and downright difficult to predict.

And while large cities like New York City are especially prone to these incidents due to aging infrastructure and the sheer amount of underground electrical cables present, small towns are definitely not immune. For example, in 2014 the tiny town of Sauget, Illinois (pop. 150) experienced an explosion so powerful manhold covers damaged overhead power lines.  

 Find out more about how road salt compounds contribute to this problem in this week's featured video.  

While explosions are the most dramatic hazard associated with manholes, research suggests that manholes are in general one of the most dangerous work locations for water system staff. In fact, according to AFSCME, fully one-third of all injuries/deaths of workers occur in or around manholes. Check out this safety presentation hosted by Michigan WEA for more information on the types of hazards presented by manholes and how to protect yourself from them. 

And if you have any lingering doubts about the force, and destructive power, of an expoding manhole, take a look at this video