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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Developing Your Source Water Protection Program

Developing Your Source Water Protection Program

Effectively safeguarding drinking water sources will ensure that your community has reliable access to affordable, potable water for generations to come. As such, utilities of all sizes should strive to develop and implement a source water protection program. Not only do these programs reduce the need to adopt costly advanced treatment processes, but their value extends environmentally, socially, and through public health as well. By maintaining water quality at the source, systems protect a fundamental barrier under the multiple barrier approach. Furthermore, a protection program has potential to not only maintain, but improve water quality.

Developing and enforcing a source water protection plan will act as a proactive defense against contamination introduced from various land uses such as agriculture, commercial facilities, landfills, mining, oil and gas operations, stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, and more. A plan can also act to mitigate impacts from climate changes such as drought or saltwater intrusion. To start a program, systems can break down the process into six steps:

  1. Delineating your source water protection area
  2. Inventory sources of potential contamination
  3. Assess susceptibility of your system to these contaminants
  4. Notify and engage the public about these contaminant threats
  5. Develop and implement a protection plan to reduce, prevent, or eliminate threat
  6. Develop contingency planning strategies if source water is compromised

Of course, some of these steps are easier said than done. To assist in your source water protection endeavors, we’ve highlighted several resources to get you started. If you expect challenges along the way, consider contacting your regional Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) partner for support.

Before developing a plan, review your source water protection area and any existing contaminant sources identified by your state’s Source Water Protection Assessment Program (SWAP). Under the 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, state programs were required to identify the land area that could impact water quality at each public water system. In addition, each state program completed an inventory of potential contamination sources in that area, evaluated water quality susceptibility to that contamination source, and made these results publicly available under SWAP. States completed the source water assessments in 2002, but were not required to maintain updates. To locate the results of your assessment, start with the EPA’s Source Water Regional Contacts or contact your state’s source water protection program.

The methods in which source water protection areas were identified and evaluated depend on the state. Many states published resources on how they chose to carry out the SWAP as demonstrated in the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s SWAP document. For updated or more local source water delineations and contaminant source inventories, public water systems can reach out to local environmental consulting firms, federal agencies like the NRCS or USGS, state cooperative extensions, and local colleges. The EPA has also developed a How-To Manual to Update and Enhance Your Local Source Water Protection Assessments that describes why and how you should collect more data.

With the state SWAP results and the EPA’s How-To manual, utilities can complete the first three steps in developing a protection program. Making the public aware of these results will allow systems to start collaborating with local organizations on source water protection efforts. By engaging local stakeholders such as the town officials, environmental groups, watershed organizations, farmers, businesses, town’s conservation commission, county extension, non-profits, etc. systems will better understand any existing source water protection strategies, who is conducting them, and how the facility’s present and future strategies can collaborate with existing strategies.

Based on data gathered from the source water delineation, assessment, and susceptibility evaluation, utilities can work with local stakeholders to develop a protection and contingency plan. While protection plans are optional in many states, utilities should first check with their state’s source water protection program to determine if a plan is mandatory and, if so, what elements must be included. The ease of which a utility implements their protection plan will depend on source water location, contaminant threats, financial and technical resources, and the degree of community involvement. To develop the plan, public water systems will need to identify management strategies and the funding to facilitate the plan.

A strong source water protection plan will have clearly defined goals with a list measurable actions and those who are responsible for them. Most plans should also include a timeline to measure progress, requirements for water quality monitoring, and a plan to track the successful completion of measurable actions. The goals outlined in the plan will ultimately address the water quality risks identified in the assessment through land use controls, land acquisition, and education. The scope of the plan may range in focus from local, regional, or statewide involvement. Check out the 2019 Roswell Municipal Water System plan to view an example of a medium-sized system’s source water protection program. To help develop a plan of your own, we’d like to recommend the following:

Guides:

The Source Water Stewardship: A Guide to Protecting and Restoring Your Drinking Water
The Clean Water Fund
The handbook walks public water systems through the process of understanding an assessment, reaching out to stakeholders, and designing an action plan.

New Mexico Source Water and Wellhead Protection Toolkit
New Mexico Environment Department
This toolkit will help public water systems develop a source water protection program in six steps.>

Templates:

Drinking Water Source Protection Plan Template (Systems Serving <5,000 people)
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
This template can be used by Ohio or other public water systems to outline a successful source water protection program. Instructions should be deleted from the Word document upon completion.

Source Water Protection Plan Template
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
This Microsoft Word template can be used as a starting point for developing your source water protection plan.

Source Water/Wellhead Assessment & Protection Program Planning Guide
South Dakota Department of Environmental and Natural Resources
This 10-page guide describes the sections that should be included in a source water protection plan.

Notification Templates:

Wellhead Letter to Potential Contaminant Sites
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
Use this letter template to request assistance and cooperation in implementing your source water protection program.

Wellhead Letter to County Mayor and Zoning Board
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
This letter template can be used to request assistance and cooperation from the county mayor and zoning board in the development and implementation of a source water protection plan.

Developing an effective source water protection plan will take time and collaboration. For more resources on protection plans, check out our document library and use the category filter to filter by Source Water/Source Water Protection.

Featured Video: Drought Response and Recovery in the Town of Castine, ME

Featured Video: Drought Response and Recovery in the Town of Castine, ME

This week's featured video tells the story of how  the small town of Castine, ME headed off recent drought and infrastructure challenges - a story that may be adaptable to other small systems nationwide. This video is featured on the USEPA's Drought Response and Recovery StoryMap Project for Water Utilities (ArcGIS) and is included as a case study resource in their recently updated Drought Response and Recovery Guide for Water Utilities guide. 

Featured Video: The Future of Water

Featured Video: The Future of Water

Water is a scarce resource for many communities around the globe, and this scarcity is becoming more and more widespread. Our featured video this week from Quartz Media looks out how one locality half a world away has addressed this challenge, and how the rest of us can learn from systems like these where the "future of water" has already arrived.

While this video focuses on a larger metropolitan area, there are some interesting takeaways for smaller systems as well such as:

  •  Solutions to water challenges are best solved at the individual and/or community level. 
  •  Water reuse is most likely already happening in your community and efforts can be made to change public perceptions. For example, a wastewater pipe enters the Mississippi River every 8 miles - meaning almost every community using the river as a water source is already drinking someone else's wastewater!     

Revisiting History: How One Firefighter Protected a Town's Water Supply

Revisiting History: How One Firefighter Protected a Town's Water Supply

Our featured video this week tells the story of how, 31 years ago, Dayton, OH's Fire Chief Glenn Alexander collaborated with the city's water and environment departments to make a difficult, but very crucial decision to stand aside and allow a Sherwin Williams paint factory to burn down. By doing so, he saved the city's water supply for generations to come. 

This story highlights the importance of collaborating with affected parties in order to make smart decisions during emergencies - certainly a lesson that never grows old. And among the many additional lessons gleaned from the incident: the importance of involving emergency responders in wet-field protection task forces or similar partnerships.  

Featured Videos: Invisible Heroes, Minnesota's Drinking Water Providers

This week's featured videos are part of a new series produced by the Minnesota Department of Health showcasing the "invisible heroes" of Minnesota's drinking water supply. In these 3-minute videos, small town water system heroes face and overcome a variety of challenges including contamination, source water shortages and aging infrastructure in order to provide safe, reliable water for their communities. Three of the videos feature small or very small water systems and the innovative strategies and partnerships they have developed to overcome their challenges. 

The first video looks at how the tiny community of St. Martin (pop. 350) has become the first town in the state with a biologically active treatment plant in order to effectively respond to high levels of iron and ammonia in their water. 


The next video explains the unique wellhead protection program developed by the City of Worthington, MN (pop. 13,000). In order to protect the City's drinking water wells from contamination, the city, along with partner Pheasants Forever, created the Worthington Wells Wildlife Management Area. 


And finally, here is a video about how the small city of Fairmont, MN (pop. 10,000) sprang into action when faced with increasing nitrate levels. 


What do all three of these smaller systems have in common? They worked collaboratively with the Minnesota Department of Health to ensure their strategies would meet with success! 

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.