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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: 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.

New Video Series: Compliance Conversations for Small Water Systems

New Video Series: Compliance Conversations for Small Water Systems

Every time we hop on a call or head to a conference, we hear from experts with a wealth of knowledge. From "Why didn't I think of that?" tips to fascinating case studies, we're bringing the juiciest tidbits to you with a new video series.

Compliance Conversations offers insights on operating and managing a small public water system from a range of contributors. Each episode will feature an interview with a water industry professional so you can learn from the comfort of your computer or favorite device.

The first four episodes feature Jeff Oxenford, of Oxenford Consulting and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. In these episodes, Jeff breaks down the most common drinking water compliance issues:

We're already working on a new batch of episodes, so make sure to subscribe to the WaterOperator.org YouTube channel so you will be the first to know when new videos are uploaded!

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 Videos: RCAP's Technical Assistance Providers on What's Really Important About Their Jobs

Featured Videos: RCAP's Technical Assistance Providers on What's Really Important About Their Jobs
These brief videos introduce RCAP technical assistance providers and how they work to improve small water and wastewater systems across the country. These videos demonstrate that while every system and community experiences different challenges, the importance of building trusting relationships with stakeholders to address these challenges is a constant. 

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Just when you think you've seen it all, someone comes up with a crazy idea that holds some promise. This just might be true in the case of a local aquaculture businessman, who, along with a Kentucky State University researcher, looked at outdated wastewater treatment plants and source water reservoirs and envisioned profitable fish farms! 

This week's featured video explains how Steve Mims and Tim Parrott used a USDA grant a few years ago to turn decommissioned wastewater plants into working aquaculture farms using treated effluent in digester tanks and daphnia (as fish food) from upgraded facilities that are often just next door. The tanks don't generate waste because the water cycles right back to the treatment plant.  

His big idea? To establish regional fish hatcheries through public-private partnerships, with young fingerlings sold to local farmers to raise in their own ponds all the while adding commercial-level fish and caviar production to the rural economies of Kentucky. So add fish farming to all the creative ways to recycle wastewater that people have been coming up with recently!  

Featured Videos: Onsite Wastewater Systems

According to the US Census Bureau, one in four homes in the U.S. is served by an onsite wastewater system. Our first featured video this week explores some of these onsite options and then explains in simple terms how each of these systems work in different soil conditions and what it takes to maintain them. In the end, the video shows how the cost-effectiveness of septic systems can often more than outweigh the cost of a centralized system for many smaller communities. 


Wondering how to find the funding to get these types of decentralized systems off the ground? Our second video this week explores how innovative partnerships and Clean Water State Revolving Funds can be used for exactly these kinds of projects.


Do you want to find out more about onsite wastewater options and how to pay for them? Head over to our 
resource library and pick "decentralized ww systems" as a category! 

WaterOperator.org Staff Interviews Illinois Small Systems

WaterOperator.org Staff Interviews Illinois Small Systems
This past year, WaterOperator.org program director Steve Wilson and his staff were out and about in rural Illinois talking to water and wastewater operators about their struggles as well as their strategies. The interviews were part of a ISAWWA Small Systems Committee (SCC) initiative to bring to light the significant challenges encountered by small systems across the state. 

The results of these interviews were published as a series of eight articles entitled "Putting the Focus on Small Systems" in the Fall 2017 edition of ISAWWA's Splash magazine. Each article describes the unique challenges encountered by a specific system.

In the small town of Monticello, for instance, water works manager Scott Bailey (shown above with WaterOperator staff member Alison Meanor) describes how he manages an aging distribution system while tackling arsenic compliance issues. And in the small communities of Beason and Chestnut, Chair of the Water District Board Mark Carlin shares how the board proactively reached out to RCAP staff for help with funding much-needed infrastructure improvements. 

Many thanks to the operators, board members, technical assistance providers and government officials who agreed to meet with us and talk about their systems!  

Featured Video: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative

Featured Video: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative
These past few weeks, our featured videos have highlighted the infrastructure needs and challenges of water utilities from several different angles: kids' PSAs, rural utilities' infrastructure improvement projects, and operational know-how for utility administrators. But maybe your community is past all that. Your community  knows what your needs are. You've studied what other utilities in similar situations have done. Your utility's leaders all have a good grasp of what the problem is and how to fix it. What comes next?

There are a couple of different answers to that question, depending on your specific circumstances and the place where you live. You might need to contact a technical assistance provider or an engineer. You might need to apply for a grant. Depending on where you live, you may also benefit from joining a regional partnership. In Alaska, some rural communities have joined the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC), which helps streamline and standardize billing and assists with infrastructure improvements. This week's video features brief interviews with communities that have benefited from this partnership. (Please note that the first 8 seconds of this video are a black screen. The video will begin after this brief pause.)

 

For more on regional partnerships, see our featured video on a regional partnership in the Southwest.

Pipe Wars

Pipe Wars
Did you know there's a battle going on under our feet? A recent New York Times article unearths the lobbying war between two powerful industries, plastic and iron, over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.

To be sure, pipe material selection can be a complex process. Piping material choices can be influenced by a whole host of factors such as geography, soil characteristics, flow capacity needed, system pressures and more. Some utilities use a single type of piping, while others may use a wide variety depending on specific sites and needs. Moreover, municipal and utility leaders must then navigate through budget constraints and marketing hype as manufacturers fight for a piece of the infrastructure pie.

It is no wonder that operators may need more information before making piping decisions. This webinar video from the Water Research Foundation about the State of the Science of Plastic Pipe provides case studies of how different utilities choose piping materials. The researchers involved in this report found that one of the most important considerations when choosing piping material is overall life cycle cost. 

Don't forget that there may be unique considerations to include in the decision-making process. For example, last month Bruce Macler from USEPA Region 9 wrote to us to let us know that "an interesting outcome of the recent California wildfires was that plastic water & sewer lines melted in some areas."  Who would have thought?

Interested in a no-nonsense listing of pros and cons of available piping materials? Check out this article.