rss

WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

Featured Video: After the Storm

If your utility is in an area that gets storms with heavy rain, you may be aware of the affect stormwater can have on water quality. Even if your area is usually dry, a sudden storm can rinse all of the oil spills, dog poop, and dust that have accumulated in the yards and streets of your community right into the nearest surface water body. Depending on the community you live in, industrial sites and large farming operations can also have an impact on stormwater quality.

This 20-minute video from the USEPA discusses how stormwater and watershed factors can affect water quality in your community. It also highlights communities that face stormwater quality challenges, and possible solutions to those issues.


If you want to see more presentations from communities dealing with stormwater issues, visit our document database and set the filters to the Stormwater category and the Presentations/Slides type. Then click Retrieve Documents. You might also be interested in these sourcewater protection resources from the USEPA. Dealing with stormwater quality can sometimes be a big project, but the benefits to your community's quality of life and public health are worth the effort.

Featured Video: Differences in Public Supply Well Vulnerability

Have you ever wondered why one of your wells has consistent problems with nitrates, E. coli, or other contaminants, while another one has a different set of problems or is totally fine? The answer may be in the ground under your feet. The geology and aquifer characteristics of your area affect how vulnerable a well is to contamination and influence the kinds of contamination most likely to affect your well. A well in an aquifer that's mostly sand will behave very differently than a well drilled in an area with a lot of sinkholes. An aquifer that's nothing but sand from close to the surface all the way to the bottom will behave differently than an aquifer with a layer of clay between the sand and the surface. And the differences go on.

To explore exactly how this works, the USGS studied four public supply wells, each from a distinct area of the country with a unique aquifer structure. Their findings on the kinds of contamination that affected these wells can be found in these four factsheets as well as in the 12-and-a-half minute video below:

Now that you have some idea of the kinds of contamination that may be affecting your well, you might have new ideas for protecting your well as well. Check out the USEPA's sourcewater protection resources for more information on developing or improving a groundwater protection plan for your utility. If you'd like to provide local private well owners with similar information on their own wells, you might want to check out our education materials for well owners at The Private Well Class.

Featured Video: Is Your Drinking Water Protected?

For the last two weeks, our featured videos have talked about the benefits of stormwater management. While stormwater management and green infrastructure are great ways of protecting your source water, a lot more goes into source water protection. Source water protection plans, wellhead protection plans, and watershed protection areas can all play a vital role in ensuring your source water enters your treatment plant in the best condition possible. This week's video takes three minutes to summarize the financial, environmental, and water quality benefits of formal source water protection planning. It does mention the state of Pennsylvania specifically, but much of the information is useful to anyone considering these questions.


If you're interested in learning more about how source water protection planning works, you might be interested in the materials offered by the Washington Department of Health's Source Water Protection program and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Wellhead Protection program. 

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. 


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.

The Latest on Twitter

Contact Us

1-866-522-2681
info@wateroperator.org