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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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: 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.  

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination

Testing the Link Between Wildfires and Benzene Contamination
In the weeks following the Santa Rosa, CA wildfires last October, city officials found elevated levels of benzene in water system samples taken from the nearly totally-razed Fountaingrove neighborhood. The first round of samples returned 4 results of over 500 parts per billion, with one of these at 918 parts per billion (MCL for benzene in drinking water is 1 part per billion). A second round of testing produced similar numbers over the MCL, without the higher spikes. A total of 145 samples have now shown elevated levels. 

According to this article in The Press Democrat, city officials, who for months have stressed that the contamination appeared isolated to the advisory area, were taken by surprise that six of those results were from outside the existing advisory area. 

With the help of a forensic chemist, who helped eliminate the possibility of petroleum leaks, the city now suspects that the most likely cause of contamination is heat damage to high-density polyethylene service lines or other plastic components (such as PVC) in the water or wastewater system. The city is enacting more extensive testing to find out if plastic laterals are responsible. Once the exact cause is identified, the city will consider solutions. Replacing the water system could cost over $20 million. 

Interested in finding out more about benzene contamination in drinking water supplies, including sampling methods, treatment strategies, and private well concerns? Check out this EPA website or this Oregon Health Authority factsheet. Another useful resource is this template (from North Carolina) to be used when high levels of Benzene need to be reported to the public . 

The Trouble With Salt

The Trouble With Salt

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report and a new university study both find that many U.S. waterways are becoming increasingly salty, contributing to corrosion in public water distribution systems in systems of all sizes across the country. Areas in the snowy northern U.S are particularly vulnerable because of road salt use, while in the Midwest, certain fertilizers with high potassium content play an additional role. If left untreated, salty water can accelerate corrosion of lead-containing pipes and joints, and can potentially release lead into drinking water.

So what is a small water system to do? Because water treatment options for salt are expensive and complicated, it makes sense to first coordinate with your public works staff to identify opportunities to reduce salt use using proven BMPs. This new web-based tool from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency can help winter maintenance organizations maintain performance while reducing salt use and saving money. This tool works for any location where road salt is used as a de-icer. In addition, this factsheet from New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services includes a concise listing of recommendations to follow for application of road salt. And finally, this recent Washington Post article suggests applying brines and different salt compounds, along with upgrading salt-spreading equipment and developing better land-use strategies.

It also makes good sense to involve your customers, since 45-50 percent of road salt sources come from private roads and parking lots. Here is an example of a handy postcard that can be distributed in your community with simple rules for protecting clean water.

More than $36 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on corrosion control to reduce lead and copper in our tap water, according to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council. Reducing the detrimental affects of salt can only help mitigate this cost, while protecting public health and our valuable drinking water supplies.

The Problem With PFCs

The Problem With PFCs
There certainly has been lots of buzz over the scope and extent of perfluorinated chemical (PFCs) contamination of drinking water lately. A Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA water contaminant data found 65 water utilities in 24 states and territories had at least one sample that came back above the threshold for these chemicals. Altogether, these utilities serve more than six million people. According to one Center for Disease Control official, the presence and concentrations of these chemicals is "one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades."

So what do we know about PFCs, then? PFCs are a family of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of products such as textiles, packaging, and cleaning products and are also additives in coating/plating processes. One of their most significant uses has been as a compound in firefighting foams used to put out jet fuel fires. In fact, most of the communities dealing with this contamination are ones that rely on groundwater and are located near military installations or airports.

Although scientists are still studying the link between PFCs and certain health issues, some research suggests that exposure to these chemical compounds can cause cancer, and/or liver, thyroid, pancreatic, kidney and fertility problems, among other things. Moreover, PFCs are stable in the environment and resist degradation, allowing them to seep out of underground storage tanks and build up in the bodies of animals and humans. 

While the U.S. EPA has issued health advisories of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFCs in drinking water, it is still evaluating health effects before taking any further action. These advisories are designed to provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing water systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect people. But just exactly who will pay for these actions, or how the money will be located in the first place, is undetermined. The Seattle suburb of Issaquah, WA, for example, has already paid $1 million to install filters on its wells, and unless income can be generated from legal claims, this will certainly affect their customers' water bills. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, bipartisan legislation that will help expedite the analysis of PFCs, and provide resources to states dealing with the health challenges posed by these potentially harmful substances. And last week, the President signed H.R. 2810 which includes an amendment for a nationwide health study to be conducted by the CDC on the implications for PFCs in drinking water. In addition, some states, such as Michigan, are creating multi-agency response efforts to address this rapidly evolving public health issue. 

If you need more information about PFCs, a good place to start is this EPA website or video. In addition, EPA has published a new fact sheet entitled “Protecting Public Health & Addressing PFAS Chemicals,” to provide basic information to the general public. And the AWWA has its own fact sheet on the prevalence and assessment of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water, as well as this listing of resources for identifying and managing PFCs.  

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

Featured Video: NASA's SMAP: Mapping the Water Under Our Feet

NASA's SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite provides worldwide soil moisture readings every 2-3 days. This data is invaluable to scientists, engineers, and local decision makers alike, improving flood prediction and drought monitoring. To see some of the images it has produced in the past, go here.

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

Featured Video: After the Storm

If your utility is in an area that gets storms with heavy rain, you may be aware of the affect stormwater can have on water quality. Even if your area is usually dry, a sudden storm can rinse all of the oil spills, dog poop, and dust that have accumulated in the yards and streets of your community right into the nearest surface water body. Depending on the community you live in, industrial sites and large farming operations can also have an impact on stormwater quality.

This 20-minute video from the USEPA discusses how stormwater and watershed factors can affect water quality in your community. It also highlights communities that face stormwater quality challenges, and possible solutions to those issues.


If you want to see more presentations from communities dealing with stormwater issues, visit our document database and set the filters to the Stormwater category and the Presentations/Slides type. Then click Retrieve Documents. You might also be interested in these sourcewater protection resources from the USEPA. Dealing with stormwater quality can sometimes be a big project, but the benefits to your community's quality of life and public health are worth the effort.

Featured Video: Differences in Public Supply Well Vulnerability

Have you ever wondered why one of your wells has consistent problems with nitrates, E. coli, or other contaminants, while another one has a different set of problems or is totally fine? The answer may be in the ground under your feet. The geology and aquifer characteristics of your area affect how vulnerable a well is to contamination and influence the kinds of contamination most likely to affect your well. A well in an aquifer that's mostly sand will behave very differently than a well drilled in an area with a lot of sinkholes. An aquifer that's nothing but sand from close to the surface all the way to the bottom will behave differently than an aquifer with a layer of clay between the sand and the surface. And the differences go on.

To explore exactly how this works, the USGS studied four public supply wells, each from a distinct area of the country with a unique aquifer structure. Their findings on the kinds of contamination that affected these wells can be found in these four factsheets as well as in the 12-and-a-half minute video below:

Now that you have some idea of the kinds of contamination that may be affecting your well, you might have new ideas for protecting your well as well. Check out the USEPA's sourcewater protection resources for more information on developing or improving a groundwater protection plan for your utility. If you'd like to provide local private well owners with similar information on their own wells, you might want to check out our education materials for well owners at The Private Well Class.

Water Loss and Conservation for Small Utilities

Water loss is an unavoidable part of distribution systems, yet too much can stress the supply and efficiency of your utility. The average water loss for systems is estimated at 16 percent, up to 75 percent of which is recoverable. This water may be disappearing due to faulty or aging infrastructure via pipe breaks and leaks, storage overflows, and house connection leaks. It’s also possible the water loss is only apparent, not real, due to errors like unauthorized consumption or inaccurate meters.

Identify your water loss

Your utility can calculate water loss as the difference between system input (the volume of water your utility delivers), and consumption (the volume of water that can be accounted for by legitimate consumption, whether metered or not.) The EPA outlines the following calculations in their overview of water audits and water loss control:

  1. Determine the amount of water added to the system, typically for a one year period,
  2. Determine authorized consumption (billed + unbilled), and
  3. Calculate water losses (water losses = system input – authorized consumption)
    1. Estimate apparent losses (unauthorized consumption  + customer meter inaccuracies + billing errors and adjustments)
    2. Calculate real losses (real losses = water losses – apparent losses)  

For a quick estimate, you can also use the Monthly Water Loss Calculator from the Missouri Rural Water Association. If you aren’t sure of the right numbers to plug into these calculations, your system may need a water audit. Maryland’s Water Supply Program offers guidance on preparing for water audits and linking them to a water loss reduction plan.

Identify your action items

Once your water loss calculations have determined whether you should take conservation actions, you’ll have a host of options to choose from. One of the most comprehensive overviews in our WaterOperator.org library comes from the Florida Rural Water Association, which not only lists options available but grades the water savings, cost effectiveness, and ease of implantation for each. In general, most of your options will fall under:

  • Meter installation, testing and replacement
  • Leak detection and management
  • Pipe repair and replacement
  • Correcting water theft and meter tampering
  • Setting conservation rates, if appropriate

If your utility is functioning well, or if you’re unable to make changes but facing a water shortage, you can also work directly with customers to change their usage habits. We’ve found few compilations of home water conservation tips more extensive than this 100 item list compiled by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.

Evaluate performance

Finally, your utility will want to set benchmarks for the interventions and check back on your calculations periodically to see how the system improves. To find more resources on how to identify and correct water loss, including those specific to your state, be sure to check our document database at wateroperator.org/library