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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Much has been said about shining a light on the value of clean water and the hidden infrastructure and personnel involved. In the past decade or so dozens of documentary films about water have been produced that do exactly that. From films that expose the aged and decaying pipes under our feet to films that reveal more complex and difficult truths about who is responsible for this decay, documentary filmmakers can bring big water issues, and the controversies and emotions that come with them, into the spotlight. 

Take for example the recent documentary Troubled Water, a film that highlights water contamination and public health issues in America. Watching the film, and seeing, sometimes for the first time, that many communities do not have access to safe drinking water can hit hard on the public's emotions. They might wonder about the lack of access to safe drinking water or why are there so many toxins and, especially, why isn't someone doing something about it? 

Or this film about plastic microfibers showing up in tap water. Samples taken from Asia to Europe to the Americas, the video maintains, demonstrate that 80% of the world's tap water contain these fibers. Scientists interviewed in the film, while agreeing that more research is necessary, believe that chemicals bound to these fibers could be toxic to humans. With plastic surrounding us everywhere we look, is there any escape? 

With their dramatic soundtracks and interviews, these documentaries can certainly get people mobilized to push for meaningful change. Yet they can also erode trust and authentic communication between the community, local governments and their water utilities, especially if the concerns are based on incomplete knowledge. The trick perhaps is to first acknowledge that any kind of public water awareness, no matter how it comes about, is essentially a good thing. Indeed, according to this EPA fact sheet on communicating with customers about contamination, every contact with the public provides an opportunity to build up public trust, develop closer ties, explain your utility's commitment to delivering safe water, prepare the public for future communication and gain support for investment in their water system.

At the same time it is important to know that whether or not these films play a significant role in public perception, results from recent polls show that Americans are increasingly becoming more concerned about water quality issues. Many utility personnel field water quality concerns from their customers on a daily basis already, so being prepared with good information and a positive attitude can go a long way in staying calm through a public relations storm, or just as inquiries increase over time. The AWWA has a helpful toolkit for talking honestly and openly with your community about difficult issues such as lead contamination.  

In the meantime, you can get ahead of the game by anticipating questions that your customers might have about their water, where it comes from, and who is in charge. Here is a list of recent water documentaries (with links for watching if available) that may be weighing on your customers minds lately. 

  • Water & Power: A California Heist This films explores competing interests in California's groundwater reserves and the privatization of water.
  • Troubled Water This film investigates drinking water contamination in communities across the country.
  • Liquid Assets This film tells the story of our water infrastructure
  • Tapped This film examines the role of the bottled water industry and its effects on our health, climate change, pollution, and our reliance on oil.
  • The Water Front This film explores issues of affordability and changing neighborhoods, as well as the strengths and limitations of community activism.
  • Flow This film asks the question: Can anyone really own water? 
  • Nova: Poisoned Water  This NOVA series uncovers the science behind corrosion control and lead in pipes.
  • Parched This National Georgraphic water series treats a variety of topics including affordability, lead in pipes, PFAs/C-8 contamination, rooftop water tanks and more.
  • Beyond the Mirage This film focuses on drought, growth and the future of water in the West.
  • Written on Water This film shows innovators in Olton, Texas who fight to keep their town alive against the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

Finally, it is hard to not get overwhelmed by the sense of despair that such documentaries can sometimes produce. However, this documentary produced in 2011 by the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water takes a more positive spin on how states and towns can tackle water quality challenges a little bit at a time to add up to significant improvements for all. 

Featured Video: Running Toilets Waste Water

As football season gets underway, it's a good time to revisit Denver Water's clever water conservation PSA. The video may be ten years old, but the simple concept still makes for a fun and memorable message. It's a good reminder that even though water utilities play a vital role in public health and quality of life, that doesn't mean we can't sometimes have a little fun. Happy Friday!



Effective Lead Sampling

Effective Lead Sampling

While the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has helped reduce lead in drinking water over the past 25 years, complying with sampling requirements can certainly be challenging! Even when a water system faithfully follows protocols, results can be inconsistent and/or unreliable. While the conditions in which samples are taken, or procedures used, are often out of the hands of water operators, the results of these tests can have significant consequences for their water systems, not to mention the communities involved. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan. 

Last year, in response to these concerns, the EPA released this memo to clarify tap sampling procedures. In addition, in a move towards a rule revision due out soon, the EPA has also recently issued a LCR Revisions White Paper that offers suggestions on how to improve the rule as well as considerations for improving tap sampling. 

In this white paper, the NDWAC Lead and Copper Rule Working Group corroborates what operators have been saying all along:  the LCR sample site selection and sampling process "provides opportunity for error, particularly given that samples are collected by residents themselves."  In addition, the group says the current system provides "opportunities for systems to implement sampling procedures to avoid exceeding the action level..." 

How to fix the problem? The group suggests substituting a voluntary customer-initiated sampling program for the current LCR tap sampling requirements and/or partnering with technology developers to identify and develop real-time monitoring technologies (such as this inexpensive lead monitor), among other things.

All this is well and good, but until this technology becomes available, and/or a more prescriptive sampling guidance or revised rule released, what is a water operator to do? Is there any sampling method that offers the most reliable results in the most efficient way?

This is the topic of a recent AWWA/WRF study entitled “Evaluation of Lead Sampling Strategies”. The study found that the answer to this question does not come easily. In fact, according to the study, "no sampling method was particularly proficient at finding the peak lead level compared to doing a full profile for each sampling event”. In addition, the type of lead found in samples was inconsistent: “even at a specific site, on some occasions the sampling can be particulate dominated and on other dates the lead can be dissolved dominated or some combination,” the report states.

It is no wonder that water operators across the country may welcome further guidance on this rule. In the meantime, Michigan's DEQ offers a couple of helpful resources: these sampling instructions can help water systems assure residents are following proper procedure and this sample site selection criteria factsheet can help systems ensure a large and diverse enough sampling pool. Please note that the use of guidance material from EPA, other states, and third-parties can offer insight and clarification, but should not be considered a substitute for policies and guidance from your primacy agency. 

To get an update on lead issues in the water industry, join this webinar that will be presented by the VA-AWWA in November. 

Finally, be sure to check out this AWWA video featured on our blog earlier this year: Lead and Copper Sampling.

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.

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Disaster Management and Black Sky Events

Coming this October, AWWA will host a webinar entitled Water Sector Black Sky Resilience. A Black Sky event is a long-duration, widespread power outage that could, in turn, cause a whole host of additional catastrophes. 

According to The Electric Infrastructure Security Council, A Black Sky event can have many causes: high magnitude earthquakes, severe space weather, electromagnetic pulses or interferences in the upper atmosphere (the kind that a nuclear detonation might cause), hurricanes, cyber-terrorism, coordinated power grid assaults and more.

Hurricane Harvey has offered a glimpse of the impact a Black Sky event would have on water and wastewater systems and the communities they serve. Black Sky events would cause much longer-term outages than the typical hazard event, and help might not come as quickly, or as easily. Back-up generators might be able to provide a certain amount of power, as long as they are in working order, but what if the treatment chemicals you depend on run out and can't be delivered to you?

Last year, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council issued a 212-page report analyzing water sector disaster scenarios and these types of cascading failures - power losses that lead to water losses and the consequences of those losses. The report concluded that this was an area that needed more analysis and planning. The report also recommends that smaller systems be provided with training as well as assistance in partnering with larger utilities that have more resources. 

Clearly, the effects of a long-term water outage on public health could be devasting, and this is why it is important to incorporate Black Sky response and recovery considerations into disaster management plans. The good news is that if you have a disaster management plan in place, you are already heading in the right direction. Using tools such as this 2016 E-Pro Handbook II (Water), you can expand your plan to include even the most severe emergencies. And this resource form the U.S. Energy Information Administration can keep you updated with live energy disruption reports across the nation. 

The USEPA also has a whole host of tools to help your utility prepare for a Black Sky event including a Power Resilience Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities, a Drinking Water and Wastewater Utility Generator Preparedness guide, and a video entitled "Power to Keep Water Moving" (click below to view). Finally, be sure to check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' EPFAT tool, a secure web-based tool to input and store emergency power assessment data. Using this tool can help USACE provide temporary power faster, getting you the right generator at the right time. 

Featured Video: WARNs in Action

WARNs have been a valuable asset to water and wastewater utilities for several years now. In the event of an emergency---ranging from a tornado to a flood to a major main break---fellow operators can come to your aid and help your utility get back on its feet. This is accomplished through a Mutual Aid Agreement.

Mutual Aid Agreements are often misunderstood. They are not set-in-stone requirements that you must give aid, regardless of your capacity to do so. Utilities volunteer to offer aid; no one is forced. Mutual aid agreements are different from regional partnerships. This past summer, we talked about the benefits of a full-blown regional partnership, complete with shared responsibilities among operators and centralized accounting and assets. Even regional partnerships can benefit from joining WARNs, since a large-scale emergency like a flood, wildfire, hurricane, or earthquake could still decimate an entire region. But if a regional partnership isn't of interest to your utility, a mutual aid agreement is still worthwhile. Signing on to a mutual aid agreement typically does not cost money, and in many cases utilities that volunteer to help can be reimbursed.

This 3-minute video from earlier in the history of WARNs provides a general introduction to the concept. It also describes an activation of COWARN in Colorado, in response to a major water contamination event in a small rural town.

To look for a WARN in your state, learn more about the idea, or view situation reports from WARN activations around the country, see the AWWA's WARN website. To see Illinois' ILWARN flyer for small systems, go here. And if you know of a particularly good WARN and small systems story, let us know!

Featured Video: System Pressure, Fire Hydrants, and Cross Connections

Last week, we featured two videos that went into detail on backflow and the assemblies and practices that can prevent it. This week's video deals with backflow also, but it places the topic within the broader context of distribution system maintenance at a smaller utility. It features an interview with Scott Roselle, the water and sewer lead at a utility serving a town in Michigan. In this 4-minute interview, Roselle discusses pressure districts, fire hydrant maintenance, and cross connections, including both general CCC topics and the specifics of mitigating cross connections with residential swimming pools and in commercial buildings. If you want to see how another smaller utility handles distribution challenges, check it out:

For more detail on small system distribution O&M, check out this handbook from our partners at RCAP.

Featured Videos: Backflow Prevention & Cross Connection Control from AWWA

No one wants to experience a backflow incident. Depending on what contaminant was involved and how much of the distribution system was affected, these incidents range from being a lot of work and expense to being a full-blown public health crisis. (See the bottom of this page to browse real backflow incidents that have occurred here in the U.S. as well as Australia and Canada.) Either way, a lot of people will have their water service disrupted and you'll have a lot of extra work on your hands until the situation is resolved.

If you're hoping to prevent a backflow incident in your community, this week's videos, courtesy of AWWA, could help. The first video explains the basics of backflow and backsiphonage and provides a brief overview air gaps and backflow prevention assemblies. The second video covers similar topics but goes more in-depth on backflow prevention assemblies, discussing the most common models, how they work, and where and how they should be installed. The first video is about 5 minutes and the second is about 7-and-a-half. 




If you'd like more training on backflow and cross connection topics, visit our event calendar and select the Backflow category and your state. If you'd like to do more reading on your own, visit our document database and select the Backflow category and the Manuals/Handbooks document type.

Repairing a Live Water Main

Get out your waders, ladders, clamps and sleeves! There’s nothing quite like the excitement of repairing a water main under pressure – and nothing quite like the kind of water operator who willingly climbs into a deep hole filled with water and mud in all types of weather.

According to Colorado Springs Utilities, there is no shortage of these opportunities: more than 240,000 water main breaks occur each year in the United States, and each one has its unique challenges. But for many of these breaks, you don't need to turn off the water.

Why? Well it goes without saying that repair work should be performed, if at all possible, without interrupting service to customers. Moreover, maintaining positive pressure in the line helps the utility avoid water quality concerns, further service failures caused by valve closures and the need for additional monitoring/sampling. 

Finally, doing live repairs means the utility does not have to issue a boil order notice, which can affect customer confidence and add additional incident reporting/paperwork requirements.  

So, when done safely and correctly, live water main repairs not only make sense for everyone, but also provide a bit of excitement in the work week! 

Need a step-by-step breakdown on the process? Check out this video from the Village of Downers Grove, IL: How to Repair A Water Main Break in 8 Easy Steps

Need help figuring out exactly how to approach a live water main repair? Check out this No Disruption Repair Decision Support Tool from the Water Research Foundation. 

And, for your viewing pleasure, here are a selection of YouTube videos of recent live water main repairs: 

  • This video provides guidance for strategic foot placement during a live water main repair.
  •  And this video offer proof of how quickly the repair can be made!
  • And this video shows an example of a water main break you will hope to never see in person!

 

Featured Video: Secure Your Utility

For the last two weeks, we've been talking about sharing the value of water and the reality of hidden infrastructure with your community. These are vital points that will help your community understand where their money goes and the importance of the work you do every day. However, there may be some individuals in your community that you wish understood a bit more about the value of water and a bit less about hidden infrastructure. Vandalism, break-ins, and other security breaches can be a nuisance at best and a public health hazard at worst. Utilities of all sizes in all kinds of communities deal with these issues, but the far-flung nature of rural utilities can make them particularly vulnerable.

So what can you do? This week's video offers some suggestions. It presents a case study of an Arizona utility that took several measures to deal with security issues. Though the utility highlighted is large, many of their practices may work for smaller utilities as well.



You can view a PDF of the handbook mentioned in the video, or use the other navigation and access options offered on the USEPA website. You might also be interested in this top 10 list of water security and emergency preparedness procedures for small groundwater utilities (also a PDF).