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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

ISAWWA COVID-19 Utility Impact Survey

ISAWWA COVID-19 Utility Impact Survey

To assess management approaches and concerns utilities have adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association (ISAWWA) released a utility survey to their membership via email on April 3, 2020. Available for one week, 141 members responded with 139 of these respondents representing public water or wastewater systems. Eleven survey questions focused on operational, managerial, and financial changes implemented in response to the pandemic as well as system concerns and needs moving forward. Three additional questions gathered information on utility demographics. Results from the survey can be found in the report: COVID-19 Impact on Utilities. In this blog we will highlight some of the key findings below.

The report indicates that the primary concerns for Illinois utilities focus on maintaining staff health, staff availability, and the continuity of operations. To respond to the pandemic, many systems have implemented staff scheduling changes, split shifts, and the reduction of staffing hours. The survey report goes on to note how other changes are being implemented and how those changes are impacting operations. Regarding revenue, many systems believe it is still too early to understand the full financial impact of the pandemic and have not begun planning for worst-case scenarios. Of those who have noticed changes in revenue, few have witnessed a positive impact on finances. The majority note that they are experiencing lowered commercial water use, an increase in non-payments, cuts to capital projects, or hiring freezes. Emergency response plans offer an effective way to mitigate many pandemic challenges, however the survey notes that only 56% of respondents are developing plans.

Additional questions from the report elucidate the training needs identified by respondents and how utilities are complying with an order by the Illinois Commerce Commission to discontinue water shutoffs.

Of notable interest to small systems, the report includes a section to highlight how system size impacts pandemic response and concerns. To develop these size related trends, the ISAWWA asked respondents whether they represented a small system serving a population of 5,000 or fewer, a medium system serving between 5,001 to 50,000, or a large system serving greater than 50,001. The report reflects that small systems generally have less capacity to respond to the pandemic likely as a result of fewer employees, fewer resources, and the use of a single staff member to maintain a large portion of the system. On the other end, though large systems may have a greater capacity to address the pandemic, they must also overcome the challenges that result from managing a greater number of staff members. Small systems may have fewer challenges related to staff management, however they must also plan for absenteeism more carefully.

For a more detailed review of the survey results, we recommend reviewing the report for yourself. Reading utility responses, concerns, and approaches to managing the virus may assist your system in planning for future challenges and concerns. Visit our web page COVID-19 Resources for Water Systems to find clear and concise information, tools, and resources to make managing these pandemic challenges a little easier.

WaterOperator.org Recommends Agencies Postpone Operator Certification Renewals During COVID-19

WaterOperator.org Recommends Agencies Postpone Operator Certification Renewals During COVID-19

As communities tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical services that water and wastewater utilities supply are ultimately pulled into the spotlight. While reliable drinking water and wastewater services remain essential to public health, they also sustain adequate hygiene practices to prevent the spread of illness.

Central to the continuity of operations for every utility lies our water and wastewater operators. Under normal operating conditions, operators, especially those of small or rural systems, must juggle the challenges of aging infrastructure, regulatory compliance, customer communication, board collaboration, and regular operations and maintenance. During the pandemic these challenges can be exacerbated by handling COVID-19 customer concerns, cross training staff, updating contingency and emergency response plans, connecting with critical suppliers, acquiring backup equipment and parts, reaching out to neighbors or mutual aid groups, etc. Operators must take on this workload while sustaining personal health and safety.

As operators manage the ongoing challenges associated with the Novel Coronavirus and Stay-at-Home orders, we have observed that several certifying agencies are extending or postponing their deadlines for continuing education requirements and the recertification of licenses expiring during this pandemic. WaterOperator.org believes that the focus of our operators should remain on continuity of operations and customer outreach without having to manage renewal and recertification requirements at this time. Our concern for small system operators, especially those of rural communities, is that some do not have access to reliable internet. Internet access that may have previously been obtained through public libraries or recreational centers is no longer accessible as a result of community shutdowns leaving operators with no alternative locations to complete online training for certification renewal. Given the extent of these shutdowns, online trainings do not offer a reliable substitute for in-person training sessions at an equal opportunity to all operators.

Many agencies are already working to address the accessibility and burden of licensing renewal. Among the certification programs who have provided relief for operators, agencies in Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin as well as the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona are working to suspend or extend the time period for licensing renewal and continuing education requirements. In Ontario, Canada an emergency order offers relief to utilities by allowing operators with recently expired licenses to continue work while temporarily allowing non-certified, but qualified individuals to perform operational duties if deemed necessary. Taking a different approach, the drinking water program in Kentucky is currently waiving late fees for renewals until August 31, 2020. While licenses can still expire, the Kentucky Operator Certification Program will consider this grace period when performing inspections or alternate staffing plans. At this time other agencies are actively considering similar measures to the examples we’ve highlighted.

Where these actions are not possible, we ask that agencies consider supplementing other educational resources to operators in need. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency notes on their website that correspondence courses are available for operators to earn continuing education credit. They recommend reaching out to local training providers to find these courses and other training alternatives. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona is also researching self-guided distance learning and the loaning of training books distributed via mail.

For some operators, achieving educational requirements and licensing renewal through the duration of the pandemic will create an added burden that may impact their ability to protect and serve the citizens of their communities. Other operators may be left unable to run their facility due to an expired license. We are grateful to the primacy agencies that have taken positive action to support their operators. WaterOperator.org believes that these measures will help utilities of all sizes to protect their communities.

Resources to Complete Your Risk & Resilience Assessment and Emergency Response Plan

Resources to Complete Your Risk & Resilience Assessment and Emergency Response Plan

Drinking water utilities should be aware of the risk and resilience assessment (RRA) and emergency response plan (ERP) requirements mandated by section 2013 of the America’s Water and Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2018. Under section 2013, community water systems (CWS) serving populations of 3,300 people or more are required to perform a risk assessment using the results to develop or update their ERP. The due date to certify the completion of these requirements is dependent on the population served by the system. If a CWS provides water to a consecutive system, they must include the population of the consecutive system in the total population served. 

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*After submitting the RRA, the ERP must be submitted and certified within six months. Community water systems will be required to review and revise, as necessary, their RRA and ERP every five years after the initial certification dates. 

These new AWIA requirements amend section 1433 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), originally created from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The Act focused on incidents of terrorism and required CWS’s serving more than 3,300 people to conduct a vulnerability assessment (VA) and develop an ERP. The new AWIA requirements place an emphasis on the risks of malevolent acts, natural disasters, and cybersecurity. Since the vulnerability assessments from the Bioterrorism Act are now more than 10 years old, AWIA approved the destruction of these assessments. Utilities that want their VA returned instead can submit a request letter to the EPA before the due date of their risk assessment.

To assist in meeting the new requirements, the EPA has developed several resources designed specifically for AWIA. Resources and tools are uploaded on this EPA web page as they become available. The risk and resilience assessment is the first requirement due under section 2013 and necessary to develop your ERP. The assessment must include six criteria. Following the assessment, the ERP must include four criteria in addition to any state requirements. In this blog we will provide information about these AWIA resources in addition to other documents that can be useful to complete your RRA and ERP. 

EPA's AWIA Resources:

Resiliency and Risk Assessment:

Emergency Response Plans:

Other Helpful Resources to Get Started:

Resiliency and Risk Assessment:

Emergency Response Plans:

To certify the completion of your RRA or ERP, the EPA has developed guidelines for certification submittals via their secure online portal, email, or mail. If your system needs any additional help to meet these requirements, the EPA will be hosting in-person and online training sessions for each region. If these document suggestions don’t meet your system needs, check out our document library to find a variety of resources on risk assessment and emergency response.

An EPA Guide for Climate Resiliency Planning

An EPA Guide for Climate Resiliency Planning

Many utilities are developing plans to increase short-term and long-term climate resiliency in response to extreme weather events, changing water availability, or the risk and resiliency assessment requirements set forth in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA). To assist in the early developmental stages of resiliency planning, the EPA's CRWU program designed the Resilient Strategies Guide for Water Utilities. This online application prompts utilities with a series of questions about their system and its resiliency concerns to provide recommend strategies that will decrease vulnerability. This web application was updated in August 2019 to allow utilities to specify their system size and find funding sources for the projects they want to pursue.

Both water and wastewater systems can use the tool. The foundation of the guide is built using the CRWU Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change and a funding list maintained by the Water Finance Clearinghouse. Completing the guide takes roughly 20 minutes. After answering a series of questions that identify your system type, size, location, assets, preferred resiliency strategies, and funding interests, the application will produce a report that can be used as a starting point to develop a more complex plan.

Once the guide is launched, you will start by answering questions about your facility and its resiliency priorities. The priorities indicate the concerns that your system wants to address. You can filter the list of priorities in the left hand menu to narrow your focus to topics such as drought preparation, flood protection, energy efficiency, etc. The ‘More Info’ button will elaborate on any option you're considering. Once you’ve selected your priorities, you’ll indicate what assets are present within your system. From there you can select your preferred planning strategies that have been suggested based on your previous answers. Filter the strategies with the left hand menu to narrow down your options by cost or category. For example, if you want to exclude strategies that require new construction, you could check the ‘repair & retrofit’ category instead. The last section recommends potential funding sources that might assist with the strategies you've selected earlier.

The strategies and funding sources will be used to generate the final report. Continue to the end and select ‘Generate Report’. This report will include a detailed summary of your answers, contact information for any funding sources you've selected, and case studies relevant to your utility. To save a copy of the report you will have to copy and paste the results into a Word document. If you have a CREAT account, you can select ‘Export CREAT File’ to download a file that can be imported into your CREAT account’s existing analysis. CREAT (Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool) is a more in-depth risk assessment and planning tool that can be used once you've done your initial research. You can preview the CREAT tool framework with their guide here.

Data Protection and Cybersecurity for Small and Medium Systems

Data Protection and Cybersecurity for Small and Medium Systems

Many water utilities rely on online technology and computer systems to increase their working efficiency. In the office space, data management software, pay roll systems, customer billing programs, utility websites, and social media improve customer services and provide an organized method to retain and access utility information. On the operational side, employees may rely on remote access control systems such as SCADA or smart metering to monitor or control systems while performing maintenance in the field. These control systems allow for improved response times and monitoring.

Yet as we all learned from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Without sufficient cybersecurity measures, systems risk the health and security of their customers. Successful attackers can steal customer personal data such as credit cards, social security numbers, and contact information. They may attempt to deface utility websites compromising customer confidence. If your system uses online process control systems, hackers could lock out utility access, alter treatment processes, damage equipment, and override alarms. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has listed a variety of cyberattacks and their consequences in its 2018 Cybersecurity Risk & Responsibility in the Water Sector Report. These attacks resulted in leaked customer information, considerable financial losses, altered chemical dosing, and even source water contamination. Just recently staring in May of 2019 the City of Baltimore has been held hostage by an ongoing three week cyberattack that demands $100,000 in Bitcoin to free city files and water billing data.

There are many types of cyberattacks including password hacking, the exploitation of software vulnerabilities, denial of service, and malware. Common malware includes ransomware, spyware, trojan horse, viruses, and key loggers. Attacks can even happen through opportunity theft, improper disposal of computer equipment, or phishing attempts where thieves pose as legitimate organizations requesting confidential information.

To prevent cyberattacks, start by identifying vulnerabilities, developing a multi-tier security plan, and actively enforcing that plan. The EPA has developed a guide explaining 10 key components for a cybersecurity plan that includes planning worksheets and information on how to respond in the event of an attack. Systems should plan to update software regularly and require strong passwords that are different for each account. Installing anti-virus software and firewalls is also effective. A security plan should include measures to educate employees on cybersecurity awareness and limit access to security information based on job function.

For an in-depth list of security practices, read through WaterISAC’s 2019 guide to reduce exploitable weaknesses or the EPA’s Incident Action Checklist. The AWWA’s guide on Process Control System Security Guidance for the Water Sector can aid systems using smart technology. To improve social media and website security, start with Hootsuite’s social media security tips and Sucuri’s website security tips.

If a data breech does occur, utilities will want to have and established protocol to resolve and mitigate potential damage. The Cyber Security Adviser Program with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers regional affiliates that will assist systems in vulnerability assessments, plan development, and informational support. While the costs associated with response, forensics, and legal fees can be expensive, waiting to take action can incur an even greater cost. Remember to keep an active cybersecurity plan and, if incidents should occur, report them to local law enforcement, the DHS, and WaterISAC.

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. 

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.  

Spooky Sewers and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant: 2018 Edition

Spooky Sewers and Things That Go Bump at the Treatment Plant: 2018 Edition
An October chill is in the air and darkness is falling earlier and earlier. It must be time to share our annual bone-chilling list of some of the wierdest, wackiest and downright most frightening water operator stories we came across this year (check out last year's list here)!
 

First, can you imagine what it would be like to get sucked through a sewer for over a mile? Well, it happened to this man when his safety harness came undone back in 2010. And although he survives, the crappy experience is surely something he will never forget. 

While we are talking collections O&M, here's a video describing one characteristic of a successful wastewater operator: a strong stomach. Another characteristic? Knowing not to "fling this on your partner."  And believe me, you don't want to know what "this" is!

Sometimes, though, what flows into a sewer simply doesn't come out, no matter how much you work on it. That is when you call in the professionals: sewer divers.

This is exactly what the water system in Charleston, SC did when they could not clear an obstruction earlier this month. They sent specialized sewer divers 80-90 feet deep into raw sewage in complete darkness to search for the obstruction with their hands..

What did they find? You guessed it: a large mass of "flushable" wipes. Lucky for us, the water system documented the whole episode on social media, but respectfully shot the pictures in low-res for our benefit.

If you want to dive deeper into the topic of sewer exploration, we double dare you to watch this video about a man who swims through Mexico City's wastewater system on a regular basis to keep it working. 

Other types of obstructions have to be dealt with in other ways. This past summer, utility workers spotted an alligator swimming in the Mineral Springs, PA wastewater treatment plant. A private contractor hired by the state Fish and Boat Commission had to use dead animals as bait to try and snag the gator with a fishing hook. 

You have to admit, wastewater often gets a bad wrap. To prove this, just ask any operator from Baltimore's wastewater treatment plant what happened there back in 2009. That was the year they had to call in experts to deal with a 4-acre spider web that had coated the plant. According to a scientific paper that appeared in American Entomologist, the “silk lay piled on the floor in rope-like clumps as thick as a fire hose” where plant employees had swept aside the webbing to access equipment. Scientists estimate the megaweb contained about 107 million spiders

Finally, it wouldn't be Halloween without ghosts, or ghost water, to be more precise. What is ghost water you ask? Well, pervasive leaks and long repair delays are causing water to disappear in Kansas City, Missouri (a kind of haunting experienced by water systems all across the country it seems). According to this 2017 article, nobody knows exactly where the water is going, but the water department points to faulty meters, theft, aging pipes and abandoned houses. Spooky!


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.  

What's New in our Document Library: Fall 2018

What's New in our Document Library: Fall 2018

Every day, staff members at WaterOperator.org search the internet to find events, resources and tools that have the potential to make a water operator's job easier and more effective. Here is a selection of our most recently-entered resources of interest to small system operators. 

Have we missed anything especially helpful recently? Let us know

Biosolids

Cyanobacteria/Harmful Algal Blooms

Emergency Response

Financial Management

Inflow/Infiltration

Non-community Systems

Safety

Sampling/Monitoring

Test-Prep Resources

Wastewater

Water Security