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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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true in the case of a local aquaculture businessman, who, along with a Kentucky State University researcher, looked at outdated wastewater treatment plants and source water reservoirs and envisioned profitable fish farms!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!  

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!  

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.

Featured Video: Wastewater Treatment Series

Featured Video: Wastewater Treatment Series
If you've worked in administration at a wastewater utility, you probably know the whole process is a lot more complicated than some might think. Even the process of getting the waste from the houses in the community to the treatment center requires vigilance. And then the steps of the treatment process start to pile up. Preliminary, primary, secondary, and then there's sludge and effluent and different ways of handling those. Whether you're the mayor, on the board of directors, answering phones in the office, or cutting the checks, you've probably had to deal with different stage of this process over the course of your job.

If that's the case, here's a chance to brush up on the details of wastewater treatment without getting overwhelmed by technical language. In this week's video series, knowledgeable staffers from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) explain the technical steps of wastewater in layman's terms. These videos are intended to help leaders, board members, and other administrative staff understand what's going on in the operation of their utility. This understanding can help you understand how to make wise operational, maintenance, and expansion decisions that take the realities of utility operation into account. The introduction video is embedded below; each of the following videos can be viewed by clicking on the titles below.

Wastewater Treatment - Introduction from RCAP on Vimeo.

  1. Wastewater Treatment - Collection System
  2. Wastewater Treatment - Preliminary Treatment
  3. Wastewater Treatment - Primary Treatment
  4. Wastewater Treatment - Secondary Treatment
  5. Wastewater Treatment - Solids and Sludge Handling
  6. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disinfection
  7. Wastewater Treatment - Effluent Disposal

For more on wastewater treatment for non-operators, see RCAP's A Drop of Knowledge handbook for wastewater systems. (There's one for drinking water systems too!)

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.

Featured Video: Liquid Assets

Featured Video: Liquid Assets
Even if you're not into New Years' resolutions, the turn of the year can be a great time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. Though I don't really make New Years' resolutions, I do like to take this time to think about my goals and strategies for achieving them. Then instead of testing my willpower against a resolution, I can focus on taking a small step toward a goal or even just thanking the people who have helped me along the way. And while this is a great time for personal reflection, organizations can benefit from asking these questions as well.

A lot of questions facing water utilities are raised in this week's video. It covers a surprising number of topics in just 27 minutes, including crumbling underground infrastructure, the political factors that keep water rates too low to cover needed repairs, and the experiences of small, rural Minnesota communities grappling with infrastructure and sourcewater protection issues. Each issue is presented briefly but thoughtfully, with plenty of input from the local politicians and city officials who had to deal with these problems directly. Though the video was originally created for a PBS station in Minnesota, both drinking water and wastewater utilities from around the country will find a lot to agree with and consider for their own utilities.



For more on rate-setting for small utilities, check out the RCAP handbook Formulate Great Rates and the EFCN rate dashboards.

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

The Drive to Privatize: Who Wins, Who Loses When Towns Sell Their Water Infrastructure

Make no mistake about it, small town utilities can represent a lucrative investment for private companies who are offering cash-strapped officials across the nation a way out of their water woes. A recent article in the Washington Post is taking a long look at how municipalities are dealing with urgently needed repairs to their water infrastructure, sometimes by offloading the burden to for-profit water companies. According to the article, investor-owned companies bought 48 water and sewer utilities in 2015, 53 systems in 2016, and 23 more through March of this year (figures from Bluefield Research).

Yet the decision to sell can come at a great cost - literally. When a private company takes over a water system, decisions on rate increases are taken out of the hands of local officials and instead decided or monitored by a state utilities regulator. "What can initially seem like a great deal" says Bolingbrook, Illinois Mayor Roger Claar in this 2016 Better Government Association article, can turn quickly sour: “The reality is [these communities] get rate increases like they never imagined.” And there are other drawbacks as well.

Ask the residents of Charlestown, Indiana who are currently in the crossfire of their town's controversial move to sell their water system to Indiana American Water Company, a deal which will significantly raise their water rates. A community group called NOW (No Outsourcing Water) is actively opposing the sale, and has filed a complaint with the state's utility regulatory commission, calling into question their mayor's motives.

Indeed, loss of public accountability can be a result when towns sell utilities. With publically-owned systems, if public officials do not respond to public concerns about the water, they can be voted out of office in the next election cycle. But when a utility is sold, it no longer has to answer to voters for contamination problems, or for rate increases for that matter. In the meantime, the water system in Charlestown still suffers from excessive manganese which turns the water brown.

Although the nation-wide percentage of privately-owned water utilities is still rather small (12%), 30-70% of water utilities in Indiana and 14 other states have gone private according to the Washington Post article. Why are so many of these towns then willing to sell?

Well, for one, private water companies have the capital to invest in infrastructure and meeting water quality regulations. Simply stated, these companies are in a better position to fix problems created by a history of funding shortages. These water company acquisitions can free up towns to use their limited funds to hire and retain critical police/fire and other staff and make much-needed repairs to roads and more. So unless state and federal funding can keep up with the acute need for expensive water infrastructure improvements (which, according to this article, it hasn't -  and in fact has been decreasing), there often is no place to turn for budget-crunched public officials looking to protect public health.

But this is not happening across the board. While some small towns are considering selling, groups like Food & Water Watch are actually seeing a reversal of the private water trend especially among larger municipalities - They have compiled the water rates of the 500 largest community water systems in the country (the largest water rate survey of its kind in the country) and found that there is an ongoing nationwide trend toward public ownership of water systems.

All the same, the key finding of this report is that of the 12% of water companies that do operate privately, most are located in small, rural communities. So who wins and who loses? Each situation is unique, and for many small towns, the answers do not come easily.

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! 

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