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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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 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. 

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. 

Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines: Partnering to Protect Human Health

Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines: Partnering to Protect Human Health

Last month, the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, a group that includes the AWWA, NRWA, ASDWA, NAWC, RCAP and WRF among others, hosted a panel discussion entitled "Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines:  Partnering to Protect Human Health." The focus of this discussion was how partnerships between water utilities and public health agencies are key to helping lead service pipe replacement programs really get off the ground. 

Dr. Lynn Goldman from the Milken Institute School of Public Health started off the discussion by providing historical context, pointing to precedents that allowed lead to be "managed in place" while also allowing higher lead levels in water to be acceptable practice. She explained that when EPA's first Lead and Copper standard (1992) began to improve health outcomes for water consumers, lower-level effects began to be unmasked. This phenomenon, according to Goldman, underscores the importance of enacting revisions to the Lead & Copper Rule, as well as best practices for lead sampling strategies. Goldman emphasized the importance of developing carefully crafted lead pipe removal programs so that more lead isn't released into drinking water supplies during the remediation process.

Other takeaways from the panel of speakers include the following:

  • Some communities bear disproportional consequence of lead contamination.
  • Lead poisoning can go undetected in individuals, but even low levels of lead affect the brain.
  • Action alerts vary state-by-state, but Amanda Reddy from the National Center for Healthy Housing recommends an action level of 5 ug/dL.
  • Lead-based paint is the most widespread cause of lead poisoning, but we need comprehensive solutions to address ALL hazards. 
  • There are proven & cost effective solutions. In fact, replacing lead service lines for just the children born in 2018 would protect 350,000 individuals from future lead poisoning.
  • Solutions must include diverse stakeholders including drinking water professionals, public health officials, elected officials, community leaders and concerned consumers.
  • Lead contamination resources need to be easily accessible for individuals affected by lead in their drinking supply. 
  • Simply providing bottled water is not a long-term solution.

Public Health representatives from two municipalities (Milwaukee and Cincinnati) also spoke at the forum, and offered their lessons learned:

  • Partial Lead Service Line replacement can cause more lead to be released into drinking water supplies. Full line replacement should be the desired strategy, and working with all stakeholders to pass city-wide ordinances requiring full replacement is the most effective way to do this. 
  • Developing lead protocols for emergency leaks and repairs is critical.
  • City-wide outreach and education/awareness campaigns are a must.
  • Prioritizing schools or childcare facilities for line replacement makes sense. 
  • Milwaukee used Wisconsin's Drinking Water State Revolving Funds to replace service lines at schools, Cincinnati used a HUD grant to replace service lines for low-income residents.  
  • Cincinnati formed a county-level collaborative and pooled resources, technical providers, outreach professionals. They also targeted their outreach to PTAs, Church groups, community organizations. 
  • Challenges include: switching out interior plumbing (inside private residences), missing out on targeting some childcare/schools because they are not licensed, and finding the time and resources to communicate effectively with customers. 

Finally, Cathy Bailey, from Greater Cincinnati Water Works, a system that encompasses an area with the second highest child poverty rate and second-highest number of lead lines in the country, offered her perspective. Her system has adopted a 15-year program for full service line replacement, with cost-assistance for low-income residents and cost-sharing arrangements for other property owners. Her advice for water systems? 

  • Water Utilities should lead the effort to start the conversation about lead in drinking water and service line replacement. Utilities have a  big stake in this issue. 
  • Utilities can be proactive in providing tools and education to their community. Cincinnati provides online resources such as a lead "map' and free lead testing as well as assistance to schools funded by their general operating budget.
  • Utilities can be proactive in communicating within their organization. Cincinnati Water Works has an internal dashboard to compile lead test results, health statistics and more. They then can identify homes that qualify for free P.O.U filters. 
  • Cincinnati Water Works partners with the health department to share data, understand water quality issues and help individuals and schools mediate problems. 

The panel participant's message was clear: lead service line replacement is simply the right thing to do for communities, and partnerships with health departments and water utilities are critical to that process. Want to find out more? Check out the Lead Service Line Collaborative's online roadmap/toolkit or follow #safewater on Twitter. 

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!  

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

How are States Using Drinking Water Revolving Fund Set-Asides?

Question: What do the following small system programs have in common? 

  • A small system electronic asset mapping project in Nevada
  • Free consolidation assessments and facilitations in Texas
  • New equipment to help with energy efficiency audits in Utah
  • A licensed operator internship program in New Jersey

Answer: They were all funded with Drinking Water State Revolving Fund set-asides.

While there are many critical infrastructure needs the DWSRF program addresses across the nation, sometimes valuable non-infrastructure opportunities such as these can get lost in the shuffle. A new analysis from the EPA is helping shine a light on the wide variety of capacity-development projects funded via set-asides that have been implemented across the country. Taking a look at this analysis is particularly helpful if state-level decision-makers need ideas about how to use set-aside funding, or have questions about set-aside funding in general. 

Using data from state DWSRF plans and capacity development reports, the analysis can help answer these needs and questions. It shows that states are using set-aside funding in the following nine (9) areas: Training and Technical Assistance, Financial Management and Rate Studies, Source Water Protection, Program Implementation (Capacity Development), Water and Energy Efficiency, Partnerships, Data Management, and Emerging Contaminants. What is important to note here is that there is a large amount of flexibility inherent in the program, which is a great thing when you are looking for ways to support important capacity-building programs in your own backyard.

  

What exactly is a set-aside fund? According to the EPA, set-asides are portion of each state's annual capitalization grant that support water system capacity, operator certification, source water protection, and training/technical assistance to PWSs. Set-aside funding cannot be used for water system infrastructure projects. Instead, the set-asides support "activities necessary to ensure safe and affordable drinking water by: (1) providing states with flexible tools to assist water systems with training, technical assistance and pre-construction activities; and (2) extending and enhancing the impact of DWSRF funding by ensuring that water systems have the technical, managerial and financial capacity to obtain a loan and to effectively maintain their resources." States can take up to approximately 31 percent of their capitalization grant for set-aside funding. 

Each state can develop its own funding balance between infrastructure and non-infrastruture DWSRF loans, and this balance can change year-to-year. Finally, states should review their Public Water Supply System Program priorities on a regular basis to determine the effectiveness of set-aside usage. Happy planning! 

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Paying for maintenance and upgrades to your utility is no small task, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cost of replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities could be almost $190 billion in the coming decades. It’s unlikely a single source can meet your costs, and smart financing will instead require a mix of external funding, capital planning and rate setting to meet your goal.

External funds

The U.S. EPA provides a thorough starting point for finding external funding sources. Federal funding for water infrastructure includes:

There is also funding available at various agencies designated specifically for water and wastewater utilities dealing with declared federal disasters, or those seeking funds for proactive planning and design.

Funding options at the state level vary, but the Environmental Finance Center Network maintains a list of funding sources by state. The lists will include the last date of update, basic information on how to apply, and staff contact information to learn more.

Finally, there may be local or private foundation grants available, depending on your situation.

Capital planning

As the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states, “Long-term planning is required to schedule major infrastructure improvements and spread the capital costs over many years in order to avoid having to raise rates significantly in any one year to pay for a capital project that was unplanned.

To that end, the center has developed resources and compiled best practice guides to help small utilities develop Capital Investment Plans and/or Asset Management Plans. These include the “Plan to Pay” tool, which uses Excel to project your fund balance (revenues, expenses and reserves), and necessary rate increases for the next 20 years.

Rate setting

Once you know your options for external funding and projected balance for infrastructure improvements, you’ll know whether and when a rate change is needed. View our past blogs on Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process and Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need.

As always, you can find additional resources in the WaterOperator.org document library, including examples specific to your state by selecting “Financial management” under Category and your location under State.

Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

Ten important tips to obtain FEMA financial assistance following a disaster

While the right amount of spring rain bring a good kick-start to crops and gardens, the wrong amount can overwhelm drinking water and wastewater systems. In the past, we’ve compiled resources on how to prepare for natural hazards, but how can your utility recover if the damage is already done?

If the worst case scenario hits your utility, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be able to provide financial assistance for repairs. FEMA's Public Assistance grants are available to state, tribal and local governments, and certain types of private nonprofit organizations so that communities can quickly respond to major disasters or emergencies. This includes the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged public facilities and those owned by certain private non-profit organizations.

These funds become available when your state declares a state of emergency and, if additional recovery assistance is needed, your governor sends a request letter to the president. If the president then decides to declare a major disaster or emergency, FEMA designates the area eligible for assistance and announces the kinds available. Most recently, President Trump has declared disasters in California and Nevada for damage from severe winter flooding.

In addition to the guidance offered under FEMA’s Frequently Asked Questions page and their complete 2017 Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, the Missouri Rural Water Association has compiled the following ten points that will help ensure your project runs smoothly.

  1. Call your insurance agent, or company, to make sure of your coverage.  FEMA assistance is only there to supplement what insurance doesn't cover.
  2. Pick a person with your system to be the Point of Contact for FEMA/SEMA.  Nothing slows the process down than a large government agency talking with multiple people from one system.
  3. Make sure everything is tracked: working hours, mileage, overtime, volunteer labor, accrued expenses, contractors, etc. When in doubt, count it. You will find standardized forms for Missouri here
  4. After you count it, take a picture of it.  Take pictures of damage, take large-view pictures of your assets that have been damaged, take close up-view pictures of damage, take pictures of your equipment, take pictures of your employees who are working and volunteers that help you work, take pictures of where flood trash is at, take pictures of where you are putting the flood trash, attempt to take before and after photos of everything you see.  Use a cell phone or a camera, but take pictures, and give all of those pictures, with descriptions, to the Point of Contact stated in Item 2 so that person can organize the pictures and have them ready.
  5. It is best to have a policy in place on bidding services and follow that during the event.  Hopefully you will have this in place before the emergency rather than trying to create and follow one during the emergency.
  6. Importantly, keep in touch with your County Emergency Management Director.  This person will be your point of contact for a disaster declaration.
  7. It is encouraged that your system holds an update meeting every day during the recovery to exchange information, pictures, status reports so that everyone is on the same page, especially the Point of Contact person knows they possess the latest information.  You may consider a less frequent meeting after the incident is done but you are still performing paperwork.
  8. Many states will continue to do Preliminary Disaster Assessments (PDA's).  This is done to determine how each county is truly affected and what dollar amounts will be allocated within that county.  The President's declaration makes funds available. That doesn't mean you'll actually get them; it depends on how the funds get allocated.
  9. Your County will hold a meeting where you will fill out paper work to participate in the declaration. Find out from your County Emergency Management Director when this meeting will occur.
  10. And finally, understand that this is not a quick process and one that has to be persistently and patiently followed up on.

 If you have any specific questions about this process it is best to first talk to your County Emergency Management Director.  You may also contact WaterOperator.org’s help line at (866) 522-2681 and our staff will help connect you to the right person.