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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

If you're a real estate agent, you may have questions about how to best advise your client about a property's water system during a transaction.  A good place to start your line of inquiry is with the question, "Does this property have a public water system?" because the answer might surprise you! Moreover, it is important to know what kind of system is involved because this will determine regulatory obligations. 

Does the property have a "public water system"?

According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a public drinking water system is defined as “a system for the provision to the public of piped water for human consumption, if such a system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves an average of at least 25 individuals daily at least 60 days out of the year”. In this definition, “serving” water means that water is available, regardless of whether or not people commonly drink it. 

Certainly, names can be deceiving because a public water system can include those that are privately owned. Examples of properties that may have small public water systems include factories with 25 or more employees, mobile home parks, subdivisions, apartment buildings, condominium complexes, day cares, campgrounds, gas stations, motels, restaurants and taverns. 

If the answer to this question is "Yes, this property contains a public water system", the property owner will have a legal obligation to ensure safe drinking water. As a result, depending on the type of system, the owner may be required to have a certified operator manage the system. This operator will provide regular testing, reporting, and notification of contaminant limit exceedances.

Some properties may not need a certified operator

To complicate matters a bit, there are several types of public water systems (community systems, non-transient non-community (NTNC) systems, and transient non-community (TNC) systems) and depending on the state, each kind of system may have different requirements. The only public water systems that are NOT nationally required to have a certified operator are transient non-community (TNC) systems, although you will need to check with your individual state as they are permitted to have more stringent regulations. 

What are TNC systems? They are properties that serve at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year, however they are not necessarily the same people each day. TNC systems include motels, restaurants, taverns, campgrounds, parks and gas stations where new consumers visit every day.

Water system inspections

A wise move would be to advise the potential buyer or seller to have an inspection conducted to learn more about the system (and help you promote the property if the inspection report is positive). Make sure you have information about local inspection services so you can provide this to your client.  Some states may require a public water supply review or have disclosure requirements when a property changes hands - be sure you check with your state agency.

More questions to ask

Additional questions to ask to help inform the process, especially when new construction or new regulations are involved, would be:

1. Is water available from a nearby utility? If so, the property may be required to receive water service from that utility. 

2. Is there a water management entity operating in the area? It may be less costly and more efficient (and possibly required) to contract with them. 

In addition many states provide excellent informational resources for buyers, sellers and their agents. The Wisconsin DNR, for example, offers this handbook for non-transient, non-community (NTNC) systems and this one for TNC systems. Washington State Department of Health provides fact sheets such as this one to advise parties involved in real estate transactions on owning and managing small water systems. 

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: Regional Collaboration for Clean Water in York County

Featured Video: Regional Collaboration for Clean Water in York County

Over 500 communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are working to meet NPDES permit standards for stormwater discharges from their municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s). MS4s that discharge to impaired surface waters or directly to the Bay are required to develop Pollutant Reduction or TMDL Plans. Meeting these requirements while also addressing important local issues such as increased flooding can be a challenge for any municipality, regardless of size.

 However, Pennsylvania's York County has proven that there is strength in numbers. This video from MOST (Municipal Online Stormwater Training Center, an initiative of the University Of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center) features Felicia Dell, the director of the York County Planning Commission discussing how municipalities in her county banded together in a consortium to attract funding, and then distributed this funding in an equitable way to construct projects that would benefit all. 

Solving the Rural Water Crisis

Solving the Rural Water Crisis
Every fall, Americans from 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: The Big Empty

Featured Video: The Big Empty

Many rural and small water and wastewater systems throughout the country face significant management and operational issues. O’Brien, Texas is just one of thousands of small communities in the United States that struggle to find the resources to ensure that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. Watch this documentary short produced by Tom Roseberg and Earth Institute fellow Madison Condon that details O'Brien's drinking water crisis. 

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

On a typical day at the plant, water and wastewater system personnel are challenged to do a lot with a little in the service of protecting and producing water for their community. Certainly one way staff members are demonstrating this resourcefulness has been in their adoption of energy efficient strategies and programs. 

Why is this important? Simply stated, saving energy can help small systems put their scarce resources towards what really matters: safe drinking water and clean wastewater discharge.  

According to Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Best Practices Guide for the Water and Wastewater Industry, additional benefits to water systems include improved control and treatment as well as shorter paybacks compared to other industries on capital costs for energy efficiency improvements. Of course, the amount of energy savings will vary depending on the type of system in use, the age and condition of the equipment/infrastructure and the capital available to implement major changes, if necessary. 

But even if you have little to no capital available to make improvements, energy savings are still very much possible! This resource from the U.S. Department of Energy, and this list from ORACWA, for example, list the many low or no-cost measures plants can take to save energy, and therefore, money. 

But before you start an energy savings programs, the EPA recommends that you conduct an energy audit or assessment of your system. Free tools for doing this can be found on the EPA's Energy Efficiency for Small Drinking Water Systems webpage, or you can view this webinar recording. In addition, the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP) staff across the United States may be able to carry out energy audits for drinking water and wastewater facilities. Find the contact information for your RCAP region at https://rcap.org/contact/.

The next step is to identify the easy targets. RCAP has an article (Five Things You Can Do To Save On Energy in Your Utility) and a video to help you do this. In addition, the EPA has a step-by-step presentation on energy self-sufficiency and the role new technologies can play to help you achieve this. 

Other resources include: 

Finally, here are some energy facts that might just surprise you! 

  • Over 90 percent of energy consumed in producing and delivering drinking water is used for pumping. (Check out this WRF resource on strategies to save $ during the pumping process)
  • 30 to 60 percent of a municipality’s energy budget is spent on the treatment of water and wastewater
  • According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, energy audits typically identify potential savings to the user of 10 to 40 percent, with 20 percent being the average.

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.

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project

Hiring an Engineer for Your Infrastructure Project
Water and wastewater systems can be some of a community's largest investments, so it is really important to get it right—decisions made in the early stages of infrastructure planning can impact a community for generations to come.

Community leaders are often tempted to let an outside consultant completely handle the project because they are worried they don't have the expertise to make the right decisions. However, it is important to stay actively involved so that the community’s voice is not lost and the project is appropriate, affordable, and supported by the public.

Certainly one of the most critical early-stage decisions in this process is who to hire as your engineer, the person who will be involved in nearly every aspect of the project from evaluating financing options, completing designs, obtaining permits, bidding the project, and the actual construction. And make no mistake, this hiring process can be a challenging task. Luckily, WaterOperator.org has a collection of resources to help you through. 

For example, this RCAP guide explains the steps that communities can take to gain control of the project-development process. It is a very detailed how-to and includes many pitfalls to avoid. It discusses securing funding, how to stay organized, and, how to hire an engineer. RCAP recommends following a QBS (qualification-based selection) process in order to choose an engineer whose strengths, experience and skills match your system's needs.

For more information regarding the QBS process, you can read this manual from Ohio Qualification Based Selection Coalition (while some of the information may be specific to Ohio, much of the process is similar regardless of the state). In addition, RCAP has a handy list of 10 tips to help communities hire an engineer.  

Other helpful resources in our library include Washington State DOH's guide for small public water systems on how to hire an engineer. Included in this guide are considerations regarding how to determine costs of services provided. Idaho's DEQ also has an engineer hiring guide that includes questions to ask during the interview. And this MAP guide emphasizes the importance of having a survey or analysis of the condition of your present system, as well as the problems a new project will address. This "Scope of Work", according to MAP, is perhaps the most important part of your Request for Proposals when searching for an engineer. 

A final, but valuable, piece of advice, repeated throughout these resources, is that selection should be based on demonstrated competence and qualifications and not on price for services rendered. In this way, you can ensure that the project will be a valued community asset for years to come. 

Featured Video: Surviving the Quake

Featured Video: Surviving the Quake

Did you know that almost half of all Americans live in areas prone to earthquakes? Water and wastewater utilities serving this population are extremely vulnerable to damage because of their vast network of underground pipes as well as their pumps, tanks, reservoirs and treatment facilities (not to mention their dependency on electricity!). This week's featured video introduces small and medium-sized water and wastewater utilities to earthquake resilience and introduces EPA tools including the Earthquake Resilience Guide and Earthquake Interactive Maps (soon to be released).  


After watching this video, read about the experiences of actual water utilities that have successfully implemented mitigation measures to address this threat in the EPA's new Earthquake Resilience Guide. And if you wondering if your utility is in an earthquake hazard area, you will soon be able to use a map such as this one from the California Geological Survey to find out.  

When an earthquake strikes, it can cause breaks in pipelines, cracks in storage and process tanks and even the collapse of an entire plant. When this happens, a community can experience loss of pressure, contamination and drinking water service disruption. The first step in protecting your community is to be prepared because the faster a water or wastewater utility recovers from an earthquake, the faster the community it serves can recover. 

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.