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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

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. 

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

Energy Efficiency Resources for Small Utilities

On a typical day at the plant, water and wastewater system personnel are challenged to do a lot with a little in the service of protecting and producing water for their community. Certainly one way staff members are demonstrating this resourcefulness has been in their adoption of energy efficient strategies and programs. 

Why is this important? Simply stated, saving energy can help small systems put their scarce resources towards what really matters: safe drinking water and clean wastewater discharge.  

According to Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Best Practices Guide for the Water and Wastewater Industry, additional benefits to water systems include improved control and treatment as well as shorter paybacks compared to other industries on capital costs for energy efficiency improvements. Of course, the amount of energy savings will vary depending on the type of system in use, the age and condition of the equipment/infrastructure and the capital available to implement major changes, if necessary. 

But even if you have little to no capital available to make improvements, energy savings are still very much possible! This resource from the U.S. Department of Energy, and this list from ORACWA, for example, list the many low or no-cost measures plants can take to save energy, and therefore, money. 

But before you start an energy savings programs, the EPA recommends that you conduct an energy audit or assessment of your system. Free tools for doing this can be found on the EPA's Energy Efficiency for Small Drinking Water Systems webpage, or you can view this webinar recording. In addition, the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP) staff across the United States may be able to carry out energy audits for drinking water and wastewater facilities. Find the contact information for your RCAP region at https://rcap.org/contact/.

The next step is to identify the easy targets. RCAP has an article (Five Things You Can Do To Save On Energy in Your Utility) and a video to help you do this. In addition, the EPA has a step-by-step presentation on energy self-sufficiency and the role new technologies can play to help you achieve this. 

Other resources include: 

Finally, here are some energy facts that might just surprise you! 

  • Over 90 percent of energy consumed in producing and delivering drinking water is used for pumping. (Check out this WRF resource on strategies to save $ during the pumping process)
  • 30 to 60 percent of a municipality’s energy budget is spent on the treatment of water and wastewater
  • According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, energy audits typically identify potential savings to the user of 10 to 40 percent, with 20 percent being the average.

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.

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 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. 

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

Featured Videos: Small Communities Benefit From Shared Resources

The Small Communities Environmental Infrastructure Group assists small Ohio communities in finding resources to help solve their infrastructure and funding problems. These two videos feature water and sewer district officials and staff discussing the benefits of participating in SCEIG regional partnerships in order to better serve their communities. 

Energy Efficiency in Action

Energy Efficiency in Action
Small systems across the country are challenged to raise revenue in order to pay for the infrastructure and water treatment upgrades necessary to meet stricter water quality regulations. However, what if this revenue shortcoming could be made-up over time within a utility itself, sometimes without raising rates? Implementing an energy audit and then applying cost-efficient energy-saving strategies may be just the ticket.

An audit or self-assessment can help staff understand how their utility uses energy as well as the impact energy-intensive processes such as pumping and aeration has on overall usage. The EPA offers a range of tools available to help with this process, including an energy use assessment spreadsheet tool.

Once an audit is complete, utilities can develop a program to reduce energy costs. RCAP suggests focusing on these five areas: benchmarking, lighting systems, HVAC systems, pump efficiency and wastewater treatment. According to Ohio RCAP, potential energy-cost reductions can range from 6 to 62 percent, with an average of less than a 1-year simple payback for communities that are actively using energy audits and energy-reduction programs. 

It is always inspiring to learn about energy-saving strategies used by other systems. The wastewater plant in Copperas Cove, Texas, for example, installed new energy-efficient blowers, a modern aeration control scheme, finer screening at the headworks and a maintenance-friendly air diffusion system in order to cut their energy costs. Since their improvements, total average monthly energy costs at the plant have dropped by nearly 25%—from $22,000 per month to $16,000.

And this video shows how a utility in Evansville, IN was able to upgrade its wastewater plant without raising rates. In addition, the city became the first in the country to generate clean energy using FOG, or fats, oils and grease. 

A good way to brush up on how to operate efficient small utilities is by reviewing RCAPs planning and resource guide or the EPA's Strategies for Saving Energy at Public Water Systems or Florida Rural Water's Energy Reduction Techniques for Small and Medium Systems. In addition, this handbook from South Dakota DENR guides small systems step-by-step through the auditing process and explains how to develop an energy conservation program, identify and implement energy conservation measures (ECMs), and monitor the progress and success of the implementation program.

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs
It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example, Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.


Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still attending high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.