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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: 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. 

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.

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Top 2017 Resources from WaterOperator.org's Bi-Weekly Newsletter

2017 was a great year for the WaterOperator.org newsletter team. We not only reached our 200th edition milestone this past fall, but we also were successful in connecting a significant number of water professionals with useful and relevant resources, resources that could be used on-the-spot to solve pressing issues, or help guide utility best practices, or help water decision-makers plan ahead for their communities. 

While many of the events, articles and resources featured in our newsletters garnered interest, here is a list of our most clicked-on resources of 2017.

Did you use one these resources at your utility this year? If so, we'd love to hear from you! Do you have a favorite "go-to" resource to share? Again, we'd love to know! Our email is info@wateropertor.org , or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities
As winter gets underway, many of communities are thinking about energy costs and energy savings. Utilities will recognize these concerns as well. Did you know 30-40% of a municipality's energy budget is spent on the treatment of drinking water and wastewater? Chances are someone at your utility has been made aware. With energy costs rising everywhere, it doesn't hurt to save money where you can and perform an energy audit at your utility.

This 7-and-a-half minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) doesn't go into the details of a full energy audit. But it does outline several areas where energy audits often find opportunities for savings. It can be a great way to introduce water boards, mayors, and other decision-makers to the benefits of energy audits. And even without being a full audit, it might give you some good ideas for your utility. Though the video highlights wastewater treatment facilities, most of the tips could be easily applied to drinking water utilities as well.

Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're interested in getting an energy audit for your utility, RCAP staff are able to carry out energy audits for both water and wastewater utilities. To find the RCAP partner that serves your region, check their website.

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Paying for maintenance and upgrades to your utility is no small task, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cost of replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities could be almost $190 billion in the coming decades. It’s unlikely a single source can meet your costs, and smart financing will instead require a mix of external funding, capital planning and rate setting to meet your goal.

External funds

The U.S. EPA provides a thorough starting point for finding external funding sources. Federal funding for water infrastructure includes:

There is also funding available at various agencies designated specifically for water and wastewater utilities dealing with declared federal disasters, or those seeking funds for proactive planning and design.

Funding options at the state level vary, but the Environmental Finance Center Network maintains a list of funding sources by state. The lists will include the last date of update, basic information on how to apply, and staff contact information to learn more.

Finally, there may be local or private foundation grants available, depending on your situation.

Capital planning

As the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states, “Long-term planning is required to schedule major infrastructure improvements and spread the capital costs over many years in order to avoid having to raise rates significantly in any one year to pay for a capital project that was unplanned.

To that end, the center has developed resources and compiled best practice guides to help small utilities develop Capital Investment Plans and/or Asset Management Plans. These include the “Plan to Pay” tool, which uses Excel to project your fund balance (revenues, expenses and reserves), and necessary rate increases for the next 20 years.

Rate setting

Once you know your options for external funding and projected balance for infrastructure improvements, you’ll know whether and when a rate change is needed. View our past blogs on Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process and Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need.

As always, you can find additional resources in the WaterOperator.org document library, including examples specific to your state by selecting “Financial management” under Category and your location under State.

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

Featured Video: Rural Missouri Climate Adaptation

Though it may still feel like spring, depending on where you are in the country, summer is just around the corner. And with summer comes the possibility of drought. Is your utility at risk of drought conditions? Do you know what you'd do if a drought visited your community? Occasional but severe weather events can feel hard to plan for, but not planning at all can make the situation worse. In this 2-minute video, a small rural community in Missouri talks about the planning efforts they're taking on to be prepared for drought in the future, after a particularly tough 2012. Interestingly, their plans to combat drought mesh well with their concerns about sediment in their source water supply as well.

If you'd like to learn more about climate adaptation planning for your utility, check out the tools available through the EPA's Climate Resilient Water Utilities portal, and in particular their risk assessment tool.

Featured Video: Green Infrastructure for Small Rural Communities

Last week, we shared videos for educating your consumers in ways to improve stormwater quality and increase infiltration. But maybe you're interested in these topics as well. In that case, this week's video is for you. This hour-long webinar recording highlights green infrastructure efforts taken on by two small, rural communities. Representatives from the utilities in those communities discuss reasons why they wanted to take on stormwater management, reasons why they chose green infrastructure, the projects and programs they implemented, lessons learned, and project funding. It includes before and after and process images, but is not a highly detailed build guide.

> For public outreach stormwater videos, see last week's blog. For more practical insights into the construction of stormwater management structures, search our document database using the category Stormwater and type Manuals/Handbooks. If you want to narrow it down further, try selecting by your state or a state near you, or type "BMP" (without the quote marks) in the Keyword search filter.

Lessons from the California drought: Planning rates and water conservation can protect utilities from lean times ahead.

By the time California entered its fifth year of historic drought last summer, water utilities across the state were dire straits. Statewide conservation orders had succeeded in many areas at reaching their much-needed target reductions, yet water agencies were struggling to meet their operating costs while facing millions in lost revenue.

Planning ahead can be critical to operating through decreases in demand or water use restrictions like those seen in California, especially with drought predictions ahead for states like Virginia and New Jersey. In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the Metropolitan Council has assembled a suite of programs and practices water suppliers can implement to do just that.

This Water Conservation Toolbox for suppliers deals with the practical need to align rates with revenue, reduce water losses, and develop a water conservation program for your community.

Setting water rate structures that encourage conservation

The Toolbox includes two programs to help utilities set rates that work for water conservation. Learn through videos by the Water Research Foundation, or run calculations for different scenarios through University of North Carolina’s Water Utility Revenue Risk Assessment Tool. The tool allows utilities to calculate how much of revenue is at risk of loss if their customers lower their consumption, providing estimates based on the utility's own rate structure, customer demand profile, and weather conditions.

If you find a rate increase is needed for your utility, see our blog posts on how to lay the groundwork for approval and gaining community buy-in.

Stopping water and energy loss

Programs to audit leaks, recycle and reuse water and reduce energy can all save utilities money during water conservation. The Toolbox provides resources to learn about the close tie between water and energy efficiency at your utility, and how to identify losses. If you see a need for change, the Toolbox can connect you to help like the Water Loss Control Resource Community.

Building a water conservation program

Finally, the Toolbox features a suite of water conservation programs to borrow ideas from. Browse a library of options from rebate and voucher programs to school education from the Alliance for Water Efficiency. And when a change in infrastructure is needed to stop water loss, the U.S. EPA provides a list of resources for financing new water infrastructure in your community.

Getting a head start to avoid disaster

In the height of the California drought in 2016, Water Board chair Feilcia Marcus told the Sacramento Bee that, with the state facing longer, more frequent droughts, local districts need to devise rate structures that take into account prolonged conservation.

“It’s certainly a challenge for some of them, but not one that can’t be overcome,” Marcus said. “The right answer can’t be that we can’t save water in the worst drought in modern history because we haven’t gotten around to changing our rate structures, or because somebody might yell at us.”