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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Solving the Rural Water Crisis

Solving the Rural Water Crisis
Every fall, Americans from all 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 Video: Using Powdered Activated Carbon to Remove Cyanotoxins

Featured Video: Using Powdered Activated Carbon to Remove Cyanotoxins

In May of this year, the city of Salem, Oregon discovered the state's first-ever algae breach in finished drinking water. Since then, there has been quite a bit of soul-searching, as well as a third-party assessment of exactly what happened and the effectiveness of the water utility's response after the event. In the end, the assessment concluded that the city was not prepared to deal with the public relations fallout, or the more practical matter of helping citizens access emergency water supplies. 

In the meantime, the Oregon Health Authority responded by creating almost unprecedented new cyanotoxin monitoring regulations for systems across the state, and the city of Salem was left to figure out how to cope with what may turn out to be a long-standing threat.

As an emergency measure, the utility started using powdered activated carbon (see video below from Statesman Journal reporter Dick Hughes) but it can cause clogging of the filtration plant.  The city is now also looking into ozone filtration, as well as other improvements including hazard response and crisis communication planning in order to be better prepared to handle future events.  

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Featured Video: Providing Sustainable Utility Management Strategies and Resources

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face considerable management and operational challenges. This week's featured video highlights the benefits of attending a "Workshop in a Box: Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Systems" training to help manage these challenges. The video features people who who attended this training: small system managers, technical assistance providers, workshop participants, and a small town decision-maker. 

Interested in attending this training? An in-person session is scheduled for later this month (9/28) in Logan, West Virginia and will cover, among other things, how to use the Rural and Small Systems Guidebook to Sustainable Utility Management to make system improvements. This material will be also be covered in an USEPA webinar this coming Thursday (9/13) at 2 pm Eastern Time.

Help your utilities provide affordable and dependable water by attending this workshop and make your water systems a community priority.

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues
While some water systems host open houses or group tours periodically, citizen academies offer a more intensive learning experience for residents. This experience can leverage a deeper understanding, and support, from the local community for the important and often underappreciated work operators do to protect public health. Residents, in turn, get a rare behind-the-scenes opportunity to learn about water and wastewater issues first-hand and experience how a water utility operates in real-time as it overcomes today's challenges.

Citizen academies come in all sizes and shapes. Spartanburg Water in South Carolina hosts a 6-week interactive series at the public library with sessions on source water, water quality and asset management as well as field trips to local plants. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a 5-week course takes participants inside the water facility to view demonstrations of daily operations, lab work and water main repairs. In Indiana, the town of Carmel organizes a Citizens Utility Academy that provides insight into the responsibilities and operations of not only water & wastewater, but also trash, recycling and hazardous waste disposal. 

The benefits to water systems are numerous. Citizen academies offer utilities the opportunity to connect with their residents in such a way that these residents become informal ambassadors for the utility. In a sense, this connection creates trust between the utility and citizens. In addition, these academies can inspire residents to volunteer to serve on advisory boards or utility committees, or otherwise serve as a liaison between the public and the utility.

Interested in exploring the possibility of a citizen's academy for your water system? This website from the University of North Carolina School of Government includes a "how-to" program component guide as well as case studies and other resources. 

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. 

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.

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

There's a new hero in town: Utilities United Against Scams. In the past year, this national organization made up of more than 100 electric, gas, and water utilities, has successfully worked to disconnect more than four dozen 1-800 numbers tracked to scam artists and swindlers who pose as utility representatives threatening to shut off a customer's service unless bills are paid. The organization has also partnered with law enforcement and created materials and resources for utilities to use to warn their customers.

Why are these warnings so valuable?  A recent report published by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) found that people are particularly susceptible to utility scams. This, combined with a median financial loss of $500 — quite a sum for many customers of small systems — means that there is no incentive for this type of activity to decrease. In fact, according to a study by Hiya, utility scams rose 109 percent in 2016 alone. 

While only a handful of mostly larger water utilities are on the roster at this time, the AWWA is encouraging additional water utilities to sign up for a free membership in Utilities United Against Scams in order to pool resources with other systems to fight this growing problem and amplify public outreach. The organization also hopes to create a centralized database for fraud committed against utility customers that could prove useful to water systems of all sizes. 

To be sure, it is important for organizations such as UUAS to address concerns specific to water utilities, concerns that are different from the typical payment scams common to other utilities: mainly, imposters trying to gain access to homes and businesses with the intent to rob by claiming the need to check meters, test water or check pipes. The Middlesex Water Company advises customers to ask for a photo ID before allowing anyone into their home and Fraud.org suggests customers take these steps to protect themselves: always call the utility directly, never pay by wire transfer or prepaid cards and never give out personal information. 

In attempt to raise awareness of these pressing issues, UUAS has created the Consumer Guide to Imposter Utility Scams to educate leaders and consumers about the types of scams that are occurring across the country (phone, in-person and internet) as well as provide tips to share with community members to avoid scams and contact information for assistance in case a customer becomes a victim. 

Are you interested in finding out more about the utility scams that are showing up in your community? Check out this interactive Scam Tracker map from the Better Business Bureau. And customers aren't the only ones who can fall prey to crafty scammers: according to this article from Idaho Rural Water, there was an outbreak of scammers in 2012 tricking rural water operators into receiving "free samples" of water treatment products that they were later charged for!