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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Succession planning in the water industry has led to a growing demand for new operators. In addition to job security, the career path offers great benefits and opportunities to develop professionally while directly improving local communities. 

In this 10 minute interview by California Water Jobs, a successful operator describes the plans he accomplished to become an operations technician foreman for the Desert Water Agency. Before his career in water, Emmanuel Sarpong worked as a Field Radio Operator for the U.S. Marine Corps. He notes that his experience in the military gave him the discipline, communication skills, and problem solving abilities essential for utility operations and maintenance. A workday for Emmanuel is always changing, whether he’s putting treatment filters back on line, collecting water samples, or even pushing a broom for an upcoming tour.

To become an operator, Emmanuel began employment with a water utility as a general worker in construction. During this time he took correspondence courses with the state of California to obtain the certification that would allow him to advance into operations. He discusses his mentor Tom, an experienced foreman who trusted him to tackle projects that trained him in the skills he uses everyday. Emmanuel’s advice to operators is to keep pushing for higher levels of certification. 

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

If you're a real estate agent representing the buyer or the seller of a commercial property (not a private home), you may have questions about how to best inform your client about a property's water system during a property transaction. A good place to start is to understand if this property has its own water supply (typically a water well), and if so, if it might be a public water system. Public water systems are required by law to meet the requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure the water is safe to drink.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a public drinking water system is defined as “a system for the provision of water to the public for human consumption." If such a system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves an average of at least 25 individuals daily at least 60 days out of the year, then it is a public water system. The 15 connections part of the definition is for a community system, meaning a water supply providing water to at least 15 residential services where people live (their homes). The only examples of a community water system that you might deal with for property sales would likely be a mobile home park or apartment complex with at least 15 residences or 25 residents AND its own water supply.

The rest are all considered “non-community” systems. For non-community systems, which are commercial private properties that are not residential, it means that if the property has its own water supply and at least 60 days a year has 25 people who could be drinking the water, then it is a public water supply. Examples of non-community systems include places many people stop at frequently (transient systems), like restaurants, gas stations, motels, churches, state parks, or rest areas; or places where people spend their day for work, school, or care (non-transient systems), like factories, schools, day cares, or businesses. So there are two types of non-community systems, transient non community water systems (TNC’s) and non-transient, non-community water systems (NTNC’s). TNC’s serve at least 25 people at least 60 days a year, but they are not necessarily the same people. NTNC’s serve at least 25 of the same people at least 60 days a year.

To complicate matters a bit, TNC’s and NTNC’s may have different certification, testing and reporting requirements, although you will need to check with your individual state (click on the "Drinking Water Primacy Agencies" tab) as the requirements may vary state to state. In Illinois, for examples, the state regulates licensed operators differently for community and non-community systems.

It is important that you understand these differences and can share them with the potential buyer. They may have no experience with managing a public water supply, and being informed in advance and understanding these responsibilities is a critical component of any property transaction. If a property is a public water supply, we would advise the potential buyer or seller to have an inspection conducted to learn more about the system (and help you promote the property if the inspection report is positive). Some states may require a public water supply review or have disclosure requirements when a property changes hands; be sure you check with your state agency.

Other Considerations

It may be that a sale hinges or is held up because it is a public water supply. A possible alternative is to contract with a management entity that has licensed operators and would be responsible for the water supply. Another consideration, if there is a community water supply nearby, would be to determine the feasibility of connecting to that existing supply, thus becoming a water customer instead of a water provider.

In addition, the state regulatory agency may provide informational resources for buyers, sellers and their agents. The Wisconsin DNR, for example, offers a handbook for non-transient, non-community (NTNC) systems as well as one for transient, non-community (TNC) systems. Washington State Department of Health also provides fact sheets to advise parties involved in real estate transactions on owning and managing small water systems.

You can find more resources in our document search by selecting “Non-community systems” as the category, and then using the terms “owner” or “guidance” in the keyword filter. If you have any questions, you can also contact our staff (info@wateroperator.org) for additional help finding information. 

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Interested in a new way to tell your water system stories? Do you want to reach out to a diverse audience using maps and data in order to help them visualize and more completely understand the issues? Then a Story Map might be just the ticket.

In the past year or so, we at WaterOperator.org have collected examples of how ESRI's Story Maps are being used by water utilities, agencies, states and local governments. Here are few of our favorites:

This Story Map from Cobb County, GA answers the age-old question, "Where do we get our drinking water from?"

And this one from Clarkstown, NY uses all sorts of graphics, 3-D visualizations and maps to illustrate how it maintains its vast MS4 stormwater system. 

The USEPA has also been using this new tool to collect case studies and utility stories for its Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities

The state of California Division of Drinking Water is using Story Maps to present lead sampling results for its public schools, updated monthly to reflect additional samples they receive. 

And here is an example of a tribal Story Map that shows how the Samish Indian Nation is building resilience for the future impact of climate change in Washington State. 

For even more inspiring examples, Esri hosts a website of contest-winning Story Maps and a Gallery of Story Maps using creative approaches and best practices in a wide range of subjects and industries. 

Story Maps are a great way to combine maps with text, images, videos and more to create impactful stories to leverage support for your water system and to communicate effectively with your audience. Story Maps are part of ArcGIS Online, Esri's cloud-based mapping and GIS platform, and you can register for a free ArcGIS public account here.

Ready to get started? The Learn ArcGIS website has this series of three 30-60 minute lessons, and/or you can watch the video below, and/or read this recent blog post on How to Make a Story Map. 

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

Being a small-town water operator is not easy; it is up to you to ensure the quality of your community's water day-in and day-out, often with very limited resources. Let WaterOperator.org help you meet the challenge head-on with this list of tools and resources to put on your radar for the year ahead:

  • Have you gotten in the groove yet with the new RTCR requirements? Here are two new documents from the USEPA designed to help small public water systems: Revised Total Coliform Rule Placards and a Revised Total Coliform Rule Sample Siting Plan with Template Manual. Additional compliance help, including public notification templates, a RTCR rule guide, a corrective actions guidance and more can be found here.
  • While we know your hands are full just getting the job done, there are new and emerging issues you may have to deal with in the year ahead. For example, this past year many communities have been dealing with PFAS contamination issues. This ITRC website provides PFAS fact sheets that are regularly being updated on PFAS regulations, guidance, advisories and remediation methods. Especially of interest is this excel file that has begun to list the different state standards and guidance values for PFAS in drinking water as they are developed. Be sure to check back often for updates.  
  • Your utility may also have to adjust to new compliance rules in the coming year. In Michigan, for example, a new Lead and Copper Rule arising from the water crisis in Flint has gone into effect, making it the strictest in the nation. Other states, such as Ohio, have also adopted tougher standards, or are now requiring schools to test for lead. Oregon has established temporary rules that will require drinking water systems in the state using certain surface water sources to routinely test for cyanotoxins and notify the public about the test results.
  • With a warming climate, these incidences of harmful algal blooms in surface water are on the increase, causing all sorts of challenges for water systems that now have to treat this contaminant. This cyanotoxin management template from the EPA can help assist you with a plan specific to your location.
  • Worker turnover and retirements will still be an issue in 2019. According to this article, the median age for water workers in general (42.8 years) and water treatment operators specifically (46.4 years) are both above the national average across all occupations (42.2 years). You can keep transitions as smooth as possible by using EPA's Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet and/or this Electronic Preventive Maintenance Log
  • New Tech Solutions: A UMass lab focusing on affordable water treatment technologies for small systems will be rolling out its Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory in 2019 for on-site testing. In addition, the facility is testing approaches to help communities address water-quality issues in affordable ways. "Early next year, in the maiden voyage of the mobile water treatment lab, UMass engineer David Reckhow plans to test ferrate, an ion of iron, as a replacement for several water treatments steps in the small town of Gloucester, MA. 
But even without all these challenges and new ideas for the future, simply achieving compliance on a day-to-day basis can be tricky - if this sounds familiar, you may want to check out our recent video on how operators can approach the most common drinking water compliance issues.

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. 

Ethics for Small Water Systems

Ethics for Small Water Systems
Being a small town operator takes strong character and a community spirit, but there are always those few who make it rough on all of us. Whether it is doctoring compliance reports, siphoning off grant money for personal use, or, as this recent news article reports, using inside knowledge and/or tools to avoid water bills, water operators can sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

That is certainly what happened in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, back in 2000. According to the inquiry report, water operators there "engaged in a host of improper operating practices, including including failing to use adequate doses of chlorine, failing to monitor chlorine residuals daily, making false entries about residuals in daily operating records, and misstating the locations at which microbiological samples were taken. The operators knew that these practices were unacceptable and contrary to MOE guidelines and directives.  In the end, over 2300 people (about half the population of the town!) contracted a virulent strain of E. Coli, and 7 people ended up dying. 

While this example is extreme, it is a good reminder that unethical behavior can result in very real, and tragic, consequences, for the community as well as for the operators involved - and this goes for even small oversights or infractions. This is why it is important to be reminded of ethical responsibilities on a regular basis, whether through required trainings, or a review of an operator Code of Ethics. 

Wondering what is included in a Operator's Code of Ethics?  Some states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia offer them, as do some operator's association such as the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association and the New England Water Works Association (they also have one for laboratory personnel). NEWWA also has a list of offenses that should invoke enforcement action against operators, including suspension or revocation of certification. In addition, NEIWPCC has a report on the results of a nationwide survey on how operator discipline & rule enforcement is conducted. 

It is also a good idea to attend ethics trainings when they are available in your area. You can check for these trainings using the keywork "ethics" (and then click on "view list") on our event calendar

We here at WaterOperator.org are interested in finding more about how to support ethical conduct at small systems - not just for board members or government officials, but for everyone involved in producing or cleaning water in the interest of public health. See our ethics checklist above for ideas about how to support ethical behavior at your water system, and let us know if you have additional ideas. 



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!     

Focus on Chemical Feed Control

Focus on Chemical Feed Control

Chemical dosing at the water treatment plant is a critical, but often underrated step in producing safe drinking water. Historically, process control points have focused on the hazards present in incoming source water - with emphasis on the filtration and disinfection steps to minimize microbial risks. But while many hazards do indeed enter the plant with the raw water, it is just as important to identify the multiple risks associated with treating this raw water.   

One significant hazard in the treatment of water at the plant is overfeeding, resulting in discoloration, strong smells, or health hazards at the tap. Some of the most common root causes of overfeeding problems are pump or equipment failures, variations in water temperature, and source water characteristic fluctuations, to name just a few. In addition, bringing new technology online can sometimes trigger an event as well. This is why it is important to carefully document chemical handling and feeding information specific to your system on forms such as this one from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.  

It is also essential to be on top of monitoring, chemical feed math skills and feed pump maintenance in order to correct situations as they arise (not to mention how to use activated carbon or sulfur dioxide to correct water quality issues). This resource from MASSDEP lists immediate action levels for water treatment plant chemicals. This tool from Missouri Rural Water can help you quickly size a chemical feed pump. This NCSE Tech Brief can help you calibrate a liquid feed pump. In addition, overfeed alarm systems are another solid choice for avoiding this problem. 

Finally, if and when an overfeed occurs in your system, prompt reporting can help speed up remediation. The Minnesota Department of Health provides this emergency response guide to its community PWSs in the case an event is affecting functionality or water quality. Learning who to call for help sometimes is the most difficult step in an emergency response situation, so preparing ahead can save you critical time and effort!  

*WaterOperator.org staff member Phil Vella contributed to this post.

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.  

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.