rss

WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Lessons from the California drought: Planning rates and water conservation can protect utilities from lean times ahead.

By the time California entered its fifth year of historic drought last summer, water utilities across the state were dire straits. Statewide conservation orders had succeeded in many areas at reaching their much-needed target reductions, yet water agencies were struggling to meet their operating costs while facing millions in lost revenue.

Planning ahead can be critical to operating through decreases in demand or water use restrictions like those seen in California, especially with drought predictions ahead for states like Virginia and New Jersey. In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the Metropolitan Council has assembled a suite of programs and practices water suppliers can implement to do just that.

This Water Conservation Toolbox for suppliers deals with the practical need to align rates with revenue, reduce water losses, and develop a water conservation program for your community.

Setting water rate structures that encourage conservation

The Toolbox includes two programs to help utilities set rates that work for water conservation. Learn through videos by the Water Research Foundation, or run calculations for different scenarios through University of North Carolina’s Water Utility Revenue Risk Assessment Tool. The tool allows utilities to calculate how much of revenue is at risk of loss if their customers lower their consumption, providing estimates based on the utility's own rate structure, customer demand profile, and weather conditions.

If you find a rate increase is needed for your utility, see our blog posts on how to lay the groundwork for approval and gaining community buy-in.

Stopping water and energy loss

Programs to audit leaks, recycle and reuse water and reduce energy can all save utilities money during water conservation. The Toolbox provides resources to learn about the close tie between water and energy efficiency at your utility, and how to identify losses. If you see a need for change, the Toolbox can connect you to help like the Water Loss Control Resource Community.

Building a water conservation program

Finally, the Toolbox features a suite of water conservation programs to borrow ideas from. Browse a library of options from rebate and voucher programs to school education from the Alliance for Water Efficiency. And when a change in infrastructure is needed to stop water loss, the U.S. EPA provides a list of resources for financing new water infrastructure in your community.

Getting a head start to avoid disaster

In the height of the California drought in 2016, Water Board chair Feilcia Marcus told the Sacramento Bee that, with the state facing longer, more frequent droughts, local districts need to devise rate structures that take into account prolonged conservation.

“It’s certainly a challenge for some of them, but not one that can’t be overcome,” Marcus said. “The right answer can’t be that we can’t save water in the worst drought in modern history because we haven’t gotten around to changing our rate structures, or because somebody might yell at us.” 

Featured Video: The EFC Water and Wastewater Rate Dashboards

The new year may be a time for considering budgets as well as operational challenges. But for small water utilities in particular, setting rates and managing budgets involves a complex set of social and financial issues that can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are resources out there that can help. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of free, interactive Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards. According to the project website, these dashboards are "designed to assist utility managers and local officials to compare and analyze water and wastewater rates against multiple characteristics, including utility finances, system characteristics, customer base socioeconomic conditions, geography, and history." To learn more about how the dashboard works, you can watch their nine-part video series, beginning with the video below:

Dashboards are currently available for twelve states. (For the most up-to-date versions of these dashboards, and to check if new states have been added, use the map at the project page.)

Even if your state is not on the list of current dashboards, it may still be interesting to check out what communities similar to yours are doing around the country. If you'd like more help working on rates and budgeting at your utility, the Rural Community Assistance Program provides technical assistance to small, rural utilities in need of both operational and administrative support. They also have a number of helpful guides aimed at supporting board members of small utilities, including this one dedicated specifically to rate-setting.

Utility finances can be difficult and complicated, but they don't have to be impossible. Find out which assistance providers near you can help you determine what's most realistic and sustainable for your utility.

Educate Decision Makers With Help From RCAP

Google “drinking water” or “wastewater,” and you’re sure to find a growing list of news articles about lead safety concerns, the recent PFOA and PFOS advisory, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and our crumbling infrastructure. The weight and fervor of these public discussions may concern some who grapple to protect our drinking water and environment. But increased attention has its benefits. It could mean your board members and other community decision makers would be more receptive to learning about your operations and operational needs. And that’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Last year, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership released two video series designed to help leaders in small, rural communities make more informed decisions about drinking water and wastewater operations, maintenance, and expansion. Each video spends roughly 2-4 minutes walking the audience through a different technical step in the drinking water or wastewater treatment process. Click on the links below to watch the videos.

Wastewater Treatment

  1. Introduction
  2. Collection system
  3. Preliminary treatment
  4. Primary treatment
  5. Secondary treatment
  6. Solids and sludge handling
  7. Effluent disinfection
  8. Effluent disposal

Drinking Water Systems

  1. Introduction
  2. Raw water intake
  3. Pre-settlement and pre-treatment
  4. Static mixers and flash chambers
  5. Sedimentation and filtration
  6. Distribution systems

Beyond these series, sharing the RCAP video The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water System with your governing body will provide insight into the day-to-day work of an operator and the importance of that role.  

Click here to browse these videos in a playlist.

To find more videos from RCAP and other technical assistance providers, visit our Documents Database and click Videos in the Type category. And subscribe to the WaterOperator.org newsletter to get featured videos and other resources sent straight to your inbox.  

Engaging Customers in a Digital World

Like most Americans, your customers probably spend half their day staring at screen—checking emails, commenting on Facebook profiles, scrolling through Twitter feeds. In fact, the Council for Research Excellence recently announced the results of a media study that revealed that 68 percent of us use at least two media platforms—tv, computer, smartphone, audio, print, tablet—at the same time in an average day.

Here’s the take away: joining or becoming more active on social media platforms means meeting customers where they already go to receive information and news.

But, like most things, doing well on social media is much easier said than done. Today we’re sharing a few overarching tips and tricks, but finding the right platform and devising a successful media strategy may require more detailed discussions and a bit of trial and error.

Fortunately, Small Communities #TalkAboutWater is a great place to have these conversations with others who understand the unique challenges faced by small systems. You can also reach out to us directly at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

  1. Define your goals and audience. Are you looking for greater community engagement? Are you in need of easier, more direct ways to share public notices? Maybe you want to connect with local and state officials. The more specific your goals and audience are, the easier it will be to choose the right social media platform and measure success.
  2. Remember not all platforms are created equally. If your system doesn’t frequently generate new pictures, graphics, or videos, Pinterest and Instagram are likely not for you. If you want to share more detailed messages—perhaps about road closures due to pipeline repairs or tips for conserving water—Facebook may be a better choice than Twitter. This article from The Next Web has more information about the pros and cons of different platforms.
  3. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Time and personnel are precious commodities for small systems. Having a smart social media strategy is worth the time, but don’t feel like you need to join multiple platforms at once or post hourly. Consider starting with a single platform and a more conservative media strategy. The key is sustainability.
  4. Make use of your existing network. Invite customers to follow and like your page(s) in your next newsletter or with a bill insert. Put links to your social media pages on your website. Encourage your existing followers to tell their friends.
  5. Prioritize customer service. For many people, an organization Facebook or Twitter page is their first stop when they have questions or concerns. Stay on top of customer issues by responding within 12 hours. And be sure to re-share favorable experiences posted by customers across your social channels.
  6. Start conversations. It’s called “social media” for a reason. The most successful users ask questions that engage followers and inspire them to weigh in on topics they care about. For example, ask customers to share their favorite water conservation practice.
  7. Share your expertise. Customers see water systems as reputable sources for information on water supply and quality issues. Share little-known facts, post links to important information, provide access to reports or relevant research.  
  8. Get personal. Social media is a place for genuine engagement. A lot of the communication water systems have with rate payers is prescribed—public notices, bills, etc. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show the personal side of your operations. Talk about what you’re excited about, highlight staff successes, wish people a happy Friday.

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.