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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Developing Your Source Water Protection Program

Developing Your Source Water Protection Program

Effectively safeguarding drinking water sources will ensure that your community has reliable access to affordable, potable water for generations to come. As such, utilities of all sizes should strive to develop and implement a source water protection program. Not only do these programs reduce the need to adopt costly advanced treatment processes, but their value extends environmentally, socially, and through public health as well. By maintaining water quality at the source, systems protect a fundamental barrier under the multiple barrier approach. Furthermore, a protection program has potential to not only maintain, but improve water quality.

Developing and enforcing a source water protection plan will act as a proactive defense against contamination introduced from various land uses such as agriculture, commercial facilities, landfills, mining, oil and gas operations, stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, and more. A plan can also act to mitigate impacts from climate changes such as drought or saltwater intrusion. To start a program, systems can break down the process into six steps:

  1. Delineating your source water protection area
  2. Inventory sources of potential contamination
  3. Assess susceptibility of your system to these contaminants
  4. Notify and engage the public about these contaminant threats
  5. Develop and implement a protection plan to reduce, prevent, or eliminate threat
  6. Develop contingency planning strategies if source water is compromised

Of course, some of these steps are easier said than done. To assist in your source water protection endeavors, we’ve highlighted several resources to get you started. If you expect challenges along the way, consider contacting your regional Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) partner for support.

Before developing a plan, review your source water protection area and any existing contaminant sources identified by your state’s Source Water Protection Assessment Program (SWAP). Under the 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, state programs were required to identify the land area that could impact water quality at each public water system. In addition, each state program completed an inventory of potential contamination sources in that area, evaluated water quality susceptibility to that contamination source, and made these results publicly available under SWAP. States completed the source water assessments in 2002, but were not required to maintain updates. To locate the results of your assessment, start with the EPA’s Source Water Regional Contacts or contact your state’s source water protection program.

The methods in which source water protection areas were identified and evaluated depend on the state. Many states published resources on how they chose to carry out the SWAP as demonstrated in the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s SWAP document. For updated or more local source water delineations and contaminant source inventories, public water systems can reach out to local environmental consulting firms, federal agencies like the NRCS or USGS, state cooperative extensions, and local colleges. The EPA has also developed a How-To Manual to Update and Enhance Your Local Source Water Protection Assessments that describes why and how you should collect more data.

With the state SWAP results and the EPA’s How-To manual, utilities can complete the first three steps in developing a protection program. Making the public aware of these results will allow systems to start collaborating with local organizations on source water protection efforts. By engaging local stakeholders such as the town officials, environmental groups, watershed organizations, farmers, businesses, town’s conservation commission, county extension, non-profits, etc. systems will better understand any existing source water protection strategies, who is conducting them, and how the facility’s present and future strategies can collaborate with existing strategies.

Based on data gathered from the source water delineation, assessment, and susceptibility evaluation, utilities can work with local stakeholders to develop a protection and contingency plan. While protection plans are optional in many states, utilities should first check with their state’s source water protection program to determine if a plan is mandatory and, if so, what elements must be included. The ease of which a utility implements their protection plan will depend on source water location, contaminant threats, financial and technical resources, and the degree of community involvement. To develop the plan, public water systems will need to identify management strategies and the funding to facilitate the plan.

A strong source water protection plan will have clearly defined goals with a list measurable actions and those who are responsible for them. Most plans should also include a timeline to measure progress, requirements for water quality monitoring, and a plan to track the successful completion of measurable actions. The goals outlined in the plan will ultimately address the water quality risks identified in the assessment through land use controls, land acquisition, and education. The scope of the plan may range in focus from local, regional, or statewide involvement. Check out the 2019 Roswell Municipal Water System plan to view an example of a medium-sized system’s source water protection program. To help develop a plan of your own, we’d like to recommend the following:

Guides:

The Source Water Stewardship: A Guide to Protecting and Restoring Your Drinking Water
The Clean Water Fund
The handbook walks public water systems through the process of understanding an assessment, reaching out to stakeholders, and designing an action plan.

New Mexico Source Water and Wellhead Protection Toolkit
New Mexico Environment Department
This toolkit will help public water systems develop a source water protection program in six steps.>

Templates:

Drinking Water Source Protection Plan Template (Systems Serving <5,000 people)
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
This template can be used by Ohio or other public water systems to outline a successful source water protection program. Instructions should be deleted from the Word document upon completion.

Source Water Protection Plan Template
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
This Microsoft Word template can be used as a starting point for developing your source water protection plan.

Source Water/Wellhead Assessment & Protection Program Planning Guide
South Dakota Department of Environmental and Natural Resources
This 10-page guide describes the sections that should be included in a source water protection plan.

Notification Templates:

Wellhead Letter to Potential Contaminant Sites
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
Use this letter template to request assistance and cooperation in implementing your source water protection program.

Wellhead Letter to County Mayor and Zoning Board
Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
This letter template can be used to request assistance and cooperation from the county mayor and zoning board in the development and implementation of a source water protection plan.

Developing an effective source water protection plan will take time and collaboration. For more resources on protection plans, check out our document library and use the category filter to filter by Source Water/Source Water Protection.

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: The Future of Water

Featured Video: The Future of Water

Water is a scarce resource for many communities around the globe, and this scarcity is becoming more and more widespread. Our featured video this week from Quartz Media looks out how one locality half a world away has addressed this challenge, and how the rest of us can learn from systems like these where the "future of water" has already arrived.

While this video focuses on a larger metropolitan area, there are some interesting takeaways for smaller systems as well such as:

  •  Solutions to water challenges are best solved at the individual and/or community level. 
  •  Water reuse is most likely already happening in your community and efforts can be made to change public perceptions. For example, a wastewater pipe enters the Mississippi River every 8 miles - meaning almost every community using the river as a water source is already drinking someone else's wastewater!     

Revisiting History: How One Firefighter Protected a Town's Water Supply

Revisiting History: How One Firefighter Protected a Town's Water Supply

Our featured video this week tells the story of how, 31 years ago, Dayton, OH's Fire Chief Glenn Alexander collaborated with the city's water and environment departments to make a difficult, but very crucial decision to stand aside and allow a Sherwin Williams paint factory to burn down. By doing so, he saved the city's water supply for generations to come. 

This story highlights the importance of collaborating with affected parties in order to make smart decisions during emergencies - certainly a lesson that never grows old. And among the many additional lessons gleaned from the incident: the importance of involving emergency responders in wet-field protection task forces or similar partnerships.  

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: 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.  

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination

In the weeks following the Santa Rosa, CA wildfires last October, city officials found elevated levels of benzene in water system samples taken from the nearly totally-razed Fountaingrove neighborhood. The first round of samples returned 4 results of over 500 parts per billion, with one of these at 918 parts per billion (MCL for benzene in drinking water is 1 part per billion). A second round of testing produced similar numbers over the MCL, without the higher spikes. A total of 145 samples have now shown elevated levels.

According to this article in The Press Democrat, city officials, who for months have stressed that the contamination appeared isolated to the advisory area, were taken by surprise that six of those results were from outside the existing advisory area.

With the help of a forensic chemist, who helped eliminate the possibility of petroleum leaks, the city now suspects that the most likely cause of contamination is heat damage to high-density polyethylene service lines or other plastic components (such as PVC) in the water or wastewater system. The city is enacting more extensive testing to find out if plastic laterals are responsible. Once the exact cause is identified, the city will consider solutions. Replacing the water system could cost over $20 million.

Interested in finding out more about benzene contamination in drinking water supplies, including sampling methods, treatment strategies, and private well concerns? Check out this EPA website or this Oregon Health Authority factsheet. Another useful resource is this template (from North Carolina) to be used when high levels of Benzene need to be reported to the public.

The Trouble With Salt

The Trouble With Salt

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report and a new university study both find that many U.S. waterways are becoming increasingly salty, contributing to corrosion in public water distribution systems in systems of all sizes across the country. Areas in the snowy northern U.S are particularly vulnerable because of road salt use, while in the Midwest, certain fertilizers with high potassium content play an additional role. If left untreated, salty water can accelerate corrosion of lead-containing pipes and joints, and can potentially release lead into drinking water.

So what is a small water system to do? Because water treatment options for salt are expensive and complicated, it makes sense to first coordinate with your public works staff to identify opportunities to reduce salt use using proven BMPs. This new web-based tool from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency can help winter maintenance organizations maintain performance while reducing salt use and saving money. This tool works for any location where road salt is used as a de-icer. In addition, this factsheet from New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services includes a concise listing of recommendations to follow for application of road salt. And finally, this recent Washington Post article suggests applying brines and different salt compounds, along with upgrading salt-spreading equipment and developing better land-use strategies.

It also makes good sense to involve your customers, since 45-50 percent of road salt sources come from private roads and parking lots. Here is an example of a handy postcard that can be distributed in your community with simple rules for protecting clean water.

More than $36 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on corrosion control to reduce lead and copper in our tap water, according to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council. Reducing the detrimental affects of salt can only help mitigate this cost, while protecting public health and our valuable drinking water supplies.

The Problem With PFCs

The Problem With PFCs

There certainly has been lots of buzz over the scope and extent of perfluorinated chemical (PFCs) contamination of drinking water lately. A Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA water contaminant data found 65 water utilities in 24 states and territories had at least one sample that came back above the threshold for these chemicals. Altogether, these utilities serve more than six million people. According to one Center for Disease Control official, the presence and concentrations of these chemicals is "one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades."

So what do we know about PFCs, then? PFCs are a family of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of products such as textiles, packaging, and cleaning products and are also additives in coating/plating processes. One of their most significant uses has been as a compound in firefighting foams used to put out jet fuel fires. In fact, most of the communities dealing with this contamination are ones that rely on groundwater and are located near military installations or airports.

Although scientists are still studying the link between PFCs and certain health issues, some research suggests that exposure to these chemical compounds can cause cancer, and/or liver, thyroid, pancreatic, kidney and fertility problems, among other things. Moreover, PFCs are stable in the environment and resist degradation, allowing them to seep out of underground storage tanks and build up in the bodies of animals and humans.

While the U.S. EPA has issued health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFCs in drinking water, it is still evaluating health effects before taking any further action. These advisories are designed to provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing water systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect people. But just exactly who will pay for these actions, or how the money will be located in the first place, is undetermined. The Seattle suburb of Issaquah, WA, for example, has already paid $1 million to install filters on its wells, and unless income can be generated from legal claims, this will certainly affect their customers' water bills.

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, bipartisan legislation that will help expedite the analysis of PFCs, and provide resources to states dealing with the health challenges posed by these potentially harmful substances. And last week, the President signed H.R. 2810 which includes an amendment for a nationwide health study to be conducted by the CDC on the implications for PFCs in drinking water. In addition, some states, such as Michigan, are creating multi-agency response efforts to address this rapidly evolving public health issue.

If you need more information about PFCs, a good place to start is this EPA website or video. In addition, EPA has published a new fact sheet entitled “Protecting Public Health & Addressing PFAS Chemicals,” to provide basic information to the general public. And the AWWA has its own fact sheet on the prevalence and assessment of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water, as well as this listing of resources for identifying and managing PFCs.

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

NASA's SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite provides worldwide soil moisture readings every 2-3 days. This data is invaluable to scientists, engineers, and local decision makers alike, improving flood prediction and drought monitoring. To see some of the images it has produced in the past, go here.