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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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.

Webinar: Green Infrastructure for Small, Rural Communities from PPI/SBEAP on Vimeo.

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.” 

Financial Accounting for Small Systems

This article originally appeared on the SmallWaterSupply.org blog in 2012 as part of the Water We Drink series, developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center. Written by Certified Public Accountant Hatsy Cutshall, its ideas and tips still hold true today.

A cascade of bad economic news since late 2008 has focused nearly every citizen’s concern on finance, certainly at home and often at the public level. Many who are struggling to pay their own bills are looking to municipal leaders and asking valid questions about how their tax money is being spent.

A water or wastewater system is often the single largest asset owned by a small community. Like a homeowner with his property, all the stakeholders of those systems are best served if that asset is well managed and maintained to get the longest and best use at the lowest cost to all concerned. It is imperative that the board and the system managers understand and appreciate the value of the financial aspect of running the system. With that understanding they are then prepared to address public questions and concerns to help them understand how and why many decisions are made.

Financial management is not just about depositing cash in the bank and paying the bills. When used as part of an effective overall management strategy, it helps managers plan for the future to avoid unpleasant surprises like a compliance order or the sudden and unplanned need for significant infrastructure replacement. It also prepares management to explain to the rate-paying constituents how the decisions are made that go into setting the rates that keep the system going.

Without sound financial information, it is easy for the public to make incorrect assumptions about how much it costs to provide safe, reliable drinking water. Often, the first target for public scrutiny is the staffing expense. In response, many small system managers and governing boards are tempted to short change the accounting and finance function in favor of technical staff. By doing so, they risk problems that could cost them far more in the long run than the salary or accounting fees they have opted to avoid.

Furthermore, when a system does face the need for additional investment or maintenance costs, managers will find that there is less money flowing overall, fewer grants, and more loans. Funders are imposing stricter reporting requirements on systems to prove their capacity to manage the money they're borrowing.

There has never been a better time for small systems to take a look at their financial management and make sure it can stand up to this heightened scrutiny. In doing so, they likely will also discover ways that their financial information can help them decide how to make better use of the income and other resources for which they are responsible.

To help system managers and board members form a strategy for improving their financial management, I've compiled some ideas for how to get started. I've had the good fortune to talk with a number of technical assistance providers and other consultants who work with small systems. They've highlighted some common situations that they find when they begin work with a small system, as well as solutions that can help resolve some difficult situations.

Ten Financial Accounting Tips for Water and Wastewater Systems

  1. Get organized! Before you can begin to create or improve a financial system you have to be able to find your expense bills, your receipts records, your bank statements, and your payroll records. Create a filing system and get your paper records in order so that when you need to refer to a document, you can find it easily. If many of your records are in electronic format, create an electronic filing system for those records, as well.
  2. Review and document the system's rules and policies for income, expenses, and setting aside reserves. Read the minutes of board meetings for policies that may need to be formalized into the operating procedures. Board members and management should consider policies for handling late payments, whether to apply for a credit card, and board policy for setting aside a percentage of all fee income for capital needs reserves, to name a few.
  3. Find the right person to do the accounting work. If the system has a staff member who can take on the work and is willing to learn, get him or her some training. If the system cannot afford or does not need even a part-time bookkeeper on staff, consider hiring a local bookkeeping or accounting firm to do this work on a contract basis. Ask if the contractor has staff members who are willing to attend board meetings to help managers and board members read and interpret the reports.
  4. Talk to some trusted and experienced advisors about the system's accounting needs before you buy software. Often small systems buy accounting packages that are far more expensive and complex than they really need. The accounting software must be able to track the water system's activity separate and apart from that of any other government activity. If the system is small enough (e.g. 50 to 100 connections) a simple Excel spreadsheet may be able to handle all the tracking and reporting you need. For larger systems or those that are ready for a more comprehensive solution, QuickBooks is affordable and can handle most, if not all, of the accounting functions that many small systems need.
  5. Build a budget. Start with the actual results of the prior year's operations and consider what is likely to change, as well as what the board and constituents wish to change and put it in writing. Once approved, enter this budget into the reporting system so that reports can compare the actual financial activity to what was expected. Comparing the two will help managers and constituents plan for the future.
  6. Find and file any records you can that show how much was paid for pipe, pumps, meters, and other system infrastructure. Identify what the system owns and adopt an asset management plan. This survey of the system's physical components then informs the financial planning and budgeting process to reduce the risk of unplanned expenditures. This summary of what the system owns and how much it cost will also give you the information you'll need to record the value of the system's fixed assets on the balance sheet as required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) 34 rule, which addresses financial reporting requirements for infrastructure assets.
  7. In addition to training the financial staff or hiring a bookkeeping firm, consider offering training for the system's board. Members of a utility's oversight board are often volunteers and may need assistance in making informed decisions and communicating the reasons for those decisions to the public. This type of training, as well as more generalized financial management training, is often offered through the state's primacy (drinking water or wastewater agency) as well as through non-profit organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).
  8. Make sure your accounting system can track and classify income by type such as fees for water service, hookup fees, late fees, and so forth. It should also provide reports on aged receivables: how much the system is owed and how much is overdue by 30, 60, 90 or more days.
  9. Classify expenses in such a way that a report reader can easily compare how money is being spent to the board's approved budget. Expense line items such as telephone, rent, electricity, salaries, supplies, and other routine costs should be created; as payments are made and entered into the system, those payments should be categorized according to their purpose. The system should also be able to provide a report on how much is owed to outside vendors and when those payments are due. This report is called an "accounts payable aging" report.
  10. Record financial activity in the system regularly and often, at least once per month. If you let bookkeeping work pile up for months at a time, it is very easy to forget information that is important to the financial reports, such as the purpose of an expenditure or to which fund is should be charged. Monthly (or more frequent) reporting also helps managers see problems in time to solve them before they become more expensive to solve.

Make the decision that financial management is as important as maintaining the plant and equipment. Whether you decide to do it to meet regulatory requirements, citizen demand, or management needs, it's a great idea!

For more information or for advice and help getting started, contact your region's RCAP office, the National Rural Water Association, or your state primacy agency that deals with drinking water or wastewater systems.

The author would like to thank the following people for their help and information in preparing this article: H.B Calvert, Karen Yates and Jan Frederick with the Midwest Assistance Program; Mary Fleming and Linda Martinez with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation; Karen Johnson and Cindy Navroli, MPA, CPA.

Better ERPs Part 4: Is Your System All-Hazard Ready?

Last year saw record-breaking heat, severe storms, and worsening drought conditions across the country. And current NOAA predictions suggests the first half of 2016 won’t be much different as El Nino continues to have widespread effects. If these events have left you asking, “What would I do if something like that happened in my community,” you’re not alone. 

In part four of our series on improving emergency response plans, we want to help you find an answer. The tips and resources below will walk you through the process of developing an all-hazards response plan and provide specific guidance for some of the most common hazards.

  1. Understand your vulnerability to extreme weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a great resource here. Their PrepareAthon website has information on when and where extreme events are most likely to take place.
  2. Identify vulnerable assets. Are key equipment located in the floodplain? Are your circuitry and control panels secured for high winds?
  3. Identify possible mitigation measures would protect vulnerable assets and priority operations. Putting in place a procedure to top off water in storage tanks prior to a hurricane or bolting down chemical tanks in advance of a flood are just a few examples.
  4. Determine which mitigation measures should be implemented. Keep in mind costs, effectiveness, and practicality when making this decision.
  5. Identify actions that will need to be taken immediately before and after an event. For example, sandbagging treatment sheds or turning off water meters at destroyed homes and buildings.
  6. Write a plan to implement mitigation and rapid-response measures. This should be revised periodically and integrated into your utility's overall asset management process.
  7. Be prepared to act. Include rapid-response measures in your employee training programs and keep staff and other stakeholders up-to-date on any changes.

For more planning tips and information on common hazards, check out these resources and visit our documents database. You can also learn more about drought preparedness in part two of this series.

Water/Wastewater All-Hazards Boot Camp Training
This training course is designed for water and wastewater employees responsible for emergency response and recovery activities. It also explains why and how to implement an all-hazards program. The program walks you through a scenario with Our Town Utility staff, lets you hear from water sector representatives, and tests your knowledge on prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH)-related Emergencies & Outbreaks
This CDC portal offers a comprehensive set of tools and resources for not only responding to a crisis but also preparing for the worst. Preparedness resources include preparedness toolkits, preparedness training, and directions for emergency disinfection of water.

Climate Ready Water Utility: Adaptation Strategies Guide & Planning for Extreme Weather Events
This webinar presentation highlights the Workshop Planner and the Adaptation Strategies Guide, and how a utility can use them both when developing adaptation plans. It also highlights utility experiences with the tools.

Drinking Water Natural Disaster Preparedness Guide
This 3-page document contains suggestions for public water supplies that the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) recognizes as lessons learned from areas in Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Flood Resilience: A Basic Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities
With a user-friendly layout, embedded videos, and flood maps to guide you, EPA's Flood Resilience Guide is your one-stop resource to know your flooding threat and identify practical mitigation options to protect your critical assets.

Incident Action Checklist – Tornado
Use this comprehensive list from U.S. EPA to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a tornado.

Emergency Response for Drinking and Wastewater Utilities
This EPA portal has a variety of tools, including mobile-friendly websites, to support utility preparedness and response.

Better ERPs Part 3: Are You Prepared for a Drought?

For those of us outside the arid West, it can be easy to push aside droughts and their impacts as something others have to worry about. But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor quickly reveals that droughts—even long-term ones—are a concern coast-to-coast. In fact, increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are exposing more and more communities to the risk of droughts and other extreme weather events.

Incorporating a drought contingency plan into your broader emergency response plan is one of the best ways to ensure your public water system is prepared for water shortages and other drought impacts. And there are a number of resources available to help you do just that.

The templates and guides below can help you design a plan that meets your system and community needs. Whether you use one of these or create your own, keep in mind these seven steps to an effective drought management plan. These were developed by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation based on the model used by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

  1. Seek public involvement by forming a committee of stakeholders who encourage and support a public "buy-in.
  2. Define goals and objectives, such as targets for reduced consumption, identifying which customers can and should be restricted and which cannot, legal requirements, minimum flow requirements, etc.
  3. Assess supply and demand—identify all existing and potential water supply sources and balance these against average and peak demand, historic demand trends, use by customer sector, interior vs. exterior use, and projected future demand.
  4. Define a system-specific drought index, such as ground and/or surface water storage, stream flows, soil moisture, rainfall deficit, well drawdown levels, and other indices.
  5. Identify potential mitigation measures, such as water audits, alternative supplies, leak detection and repair, public education, restrictions/bans on non-essential use, pricing disincentives (surcharges), and, finally, rationing.
  6. Assess potential impacts of mitigation measures, such as reduced revenues, customer acceptance, rate equity, legal implications, history, and implementation costs.
  7. Develop and implement the plan using the management strategies, templates, and statistics assembled during the assessment process.
If you don't see something that fits your system's needs below, search "drought" in our documents database to find more resources. You can also find information on water conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy for small utilities in Sustainable Infrastructure for Small System Public Services: A Planning and Resource Guide. And be sure to read the Part 2 of this four-part series for help building a comprehensive emergency response plan.

Drought Contingency Plan for a Public Water System (Example): ABC Water Company Drought Contingency Plan
This 11-page document provides an example of how to fill out the model drought contingency plan for retail public water suppliers.

Drought Management Toolkit for Public Water Suppliers
This 49-page handbook was developed by the Utah Division of Water Resources to help public water suppliers better prepare for and manage future droughts. This toolkit consists of two main elements: a model drought mitigation plan and a model drought response plan (or contingency plan, which can also be used to address other water shortages).

Drought Contingency Plan summary—Well Levels Known
This 1-page document, when completed, summarizes an operator's plan for a drought. It is broken down into three stages, depending on how severe the drought is.

Drought Contingency Plan: Public Water System
This 36-page template can be used for a drought contingency plan for a tribal public water system. The template covers a broad list of sections and topics with the aim of being applicable for a majority of the water systems. Because tribal water systems vary, it is recommended that the tribe edit and modify the template to best fit their specific situation and context, and only include those sections that are necessary.

Do You Rely on Your SCADA System Too Much?

*Originally posted on SmallWaterSupply.org July 9, 2012 by Steve Wilson. 

I was at an asset management workshop recently that included a number of state regulators. The theme was asset management and certification, but O & M and the tie-in to understanding your assets kept coming up.

O & M Is Tied To Asset Management
I realize the title of this blog post is about SCADA systems, and many small communities don't even have them, but whether you use SCADA or not, the principles behind good O & M are important for all systems. It's all about understanding your system, the equipment, infrastructure, and treatment, as well as the process of running the plant (O & M). I know everyone hears about the importance of testing generators monthly and servicing pumps when recommended, but many times these things are low priority. Weeks turn into months and months turn into years. I was at a plant this summer that was using a federal grant to get a new generator for their water plant. I had just been in the wastewater plant for this same community this last fall where there was a perfectly good generator that would serve the purpose. I brought this up to the consultant managing the grant, but he said it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, the community had no warranty on the generator because they didn't follow the maintenance schedule. It had sat in a garage for number of years and not been ran. As a taxpayer, that's frustrating, but as a small systems advocate, it gives us all a black eye.

So On To Best Practices

At the workshop, someone from Michigan mentioned that one of their larger communities was planning to shut down their SCADA system for a week. This wasn't being done to allow upgrades or changes to the system, this was being done because the Water Supt. wanted to make sure his staff knew how to run the plant. This system is being proactive, both from an emergency standpoint, and also from an operations standpoint. We all rely on technology and automatic this or that for so many things these days, but to really "know" your plant, to be able to troubleshoot and tell when something isn't quite running right, you really have to have a comprehensive understanding of how your system works.

I Know, You Already Know Your Plant That Well
You are thinking, I already have that level of understanding of my plant, I know when something doesn't sound right, look right, or even feel right. Thats great, but what about the next level of support? What happens when you are not there? Do you ever take vacation or have to be out of town for a day or two? Is the person left in charge of your plant as familiar with your system as you are? Do they know your plant well enough to troubleshoot when a problem pops up? They need to have that level of understanding, or have something they can turn to that has those details.

That brings us back to one of those O & M things that are a pain, take time, and because you know the plant so well, keep putting off or don't see a need for. You should have an O & M manual for your plant. No one else can write it, and its only as useful as the information you put into it. It comes down to being prepared and taking full responsibility for the operation of the plant. That also means being prepared in case you can't be there for some reason.

Getting Started
First of all, develop an emergency response plan. There are templates available from a number of sources. You can contact a TA provider you work with, they will be able to get you started. If you want to look at some of the better ones, type in "emergency response plan" in our document keyword search, and use "type = templates". But, for those of you that already have an ERP, take the next step, develop an O & M plan for your plant. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Florida require O & M plans, I'm sure there are others. New Jersey has an O & M template that operators can use to help them develop their O & M plan, as do Florida, Louisiana, and Vermont. Georgia has a guidance manual as well. It was also brought up at the workshop that Colorado is developing an O & M and training manual geared toward walking you through developing an O & M plan for your facility. It sounds like it will be a great resource. Once the Colorado document is available, we'll post an update and provide those details. Lastly, if you need some help, email or call us. We can either help you directly or find someone in your area who can help you get started.

Water Reuse in Illinois: Part 2

Last week, we introduced you to Rick Manner, the director of the Urbana-Champaign Sanitation District. In the part two of our interview, you'll hear about how changes in the State Revolving Loan Fund opened the door to reuse project and how the district determined the market value of their effluent. 

Illinois EPA is allowing Cronus to apply for SRF funding to build the pipeline. Can you tell us more about that?

State Revolving Loan Fund is part of how wastewater plants expanded in the 1970s. The U.S. EPA set up a big pot of money that the states could draw from for loans to city sanitation districts to help them expand their treatment facilities. Treatment facilities then pay back the loan over time, which sets up the revolving nature of the program. The payments going in this year can then go out to someone else.

Originally, SRF was set up exclusively for wastewater treatment plants, but then they set up an equivalent for drinking water plants. Then the Water Resources Reform and Development Act was passed in 2014. In that, Congress explicitly called out an expansion of SRF. They explicitly said that reuse projects, including the pipelines associated with them, can be eligible for loan options. In particular, they said that because reuse is a little bit unusual, the funding can go not only to municipal bodies but also to private sector entities.  

Before these amendments, it was ambiguous as to whether this project would have been eligible for SRF dollars. We would have had to argue that it was part of our treatment plant. But now Illinois EPA is willing to consider it because Congress has said that reuse can be eligible.

This is significant because the reason reuse projects often fail is the difficult economic hurdle of building the pipeline from point A to point B. The biggest reason Cronus might not want to do reuse is the $20 million hurdle of building the long pipeline. Even though it may cost more on a per gallon basis to make a drinking water pipe larger, that up front capital cost is so difficult to overcome that it often kills reuse projects. So SRF really helps make reuse a more appealing operation to consider because the interest rate is so good.

How did you decide what to charge for the effluent?

That is one of the more interesting elements of this whole process. Currently, we get nothing for the 20 million gallons a day that we discharge. So, in theory, if I were to get $1 for it, we would come out better. In reality, we did bit of research to try and find out what projects are out there and what other people are charging. It was a bit challenging because they’re aren’t very many in the Midwest. There are a few golf courses that use effluent about a hundred miles from here. But for the most part, they get a very large volume at a low rate. And that’s because the golf course happens to be right across from the water treatment plant. There really aren’t good models for effluent pricing.

We landed on a shared benefit/shared cost scenario. If Cronus was to buy from the drinking water plant, they would be charged about $3 per thousand gallons. However, they would get the pipeline subsidized by the drinking water plant, so it is really more like $2 per thousand gallons range. If we were much more than that, they would logically turn to the groundwater resource. That set a ceiling for the rate we could charge.

But there is also added risk associated with our flow because our water is not as pristine as good aquifer water. We aren’t required to treat it back to groundwater quality. And so, because of that added risk and the fact that they may need to do some chemical treatment on their end. We settled on charging just over $1 per thousand gallons. That’s the baseline price. On top of that, we get a 30 cent per thousand gallons add-on for our capital projects. That is how we will be funded for our lagoon and our pump station. Once we’ve been paid $3 million via that added amount, the extra fee will go away, and we will be back down to the $1 per thousand gallons. There is an inflation factor that is kicking in, so it is a bit more than that.

Ultimately, we will get about $2 million a year in income. Our expenses would be anywhere from $500,000 to a million dollars. So the benefit our ratepayers should expect to see is about $1 million a year net benefit, which is about 7 percent of our annual income. Some of that may be in value from the lagoon that won’t be a direct cash benefit. But we are aiming to keep the cash fraction as close to a full million as we can so that we can feel really good about this being a net benefit for the rate payers

One thing that I need to emphasize is that UCSD’s expenses have been going up continuously. I cannot and never will guarantee no rate increases. But I can absolutely guarantee that all of the finical benefit that UCSD gets will be seen by the rate payers in terms of avoided rate increases.

What other benefits can ratepayers expect?

Our board of trustees also voted to spend about $50,000 a year on habitat projects to make the creeks healthier in the long run. We consider that a reasonable thing to do with some of that income. That way the waterway will be healthier and better able to handle the drought conditions. By adding some pools and riffles, we can add some physical complexities that will help the fish and other aquatic species handle the stress of a drought better.

The pool and riffles idea is something the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been looking to do for a number of years in the Copper Slough. They already have some money set aside for it as a result of a truck accident that spilled into the waterway. But they are looking for local matching funds, which they have had a hard time securing over the last few years. We would provide those local matching funds to allow that project to finally begin.

What’s the status of the deal with Cronus?

Cronus has announced that, if they build a plant, it will in Tuscola. And we have a contract to sell them effluent, so we would be their main water source if this all goes forward. Right now, they are looking to secure financing for the facility, so they are talking to financial people to get that secured. That is still a work in progress.

Is there an expected timeline?

It’s a process that has taken a few months and will take a few more. The finance people want a lot of assurances before they actually open up the check book. We are hoping for a positive announcement sometime soon. 

SRF Could Help Illinois Water Reuse Project

When the Cronus fertilizer plant slated to be built near Tuscola, Illinois is fully operational, much of their water will come from the Urbana-Champaign Sanitation District (UCSD) roughly 20 miles north. UCSD has agreed to pipe over 6 million gallons of effluent to the plant everyday for industrial uses. We sat down with UCSD director Rick Manner last fall to discuss the project and what it will mean for UCSD operations. 

Tell us a little about UCSD.

We treat the sewage from the cities of Urbana and Champaign and the villages of Savoy and Bondville. About 10 percent of our customers are in the unincorporated areas around Champaign and Urbana.

In a typical day in normal weather, we discharge about 22 million gallons of sewage. About two-thirds of that comes out of our plant in northeast Urbana, which flows into the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork River and ultimately into the Vermillion and Ohio rivers. Over in southwest Champaign, about a third of our water comes out of our Southwest Plant. That goes into the Copper Slough, which flows into the Kaskaskia and then the Mississippi River.

In extreme drought conditions, we are down to a total of about 12 million gallons a day, with about three-quarters from our Northeast Plant and one quarter from our Southwest Plant.

That said, our sewers are actually going to be rearranged a little in the near future. Right now, there are a lot of tall buildings being built on campus, and those sewers that they are discharging to are getting the challenge of 20-story buildings where there was previously a mom-and-pop business or a two-story building. It’s actually producing a good deal of burden on those sewers, so we will be rearranging some of our flows within the sewers. We’ll be diverting flows from the Northeast Plant and pushing it over to our Southwest Plant. So, even in times of drought, we will be at about a 60/40 split.

We need to do this to deal with our own sewer issues. But it so happens that it helps in regards to Cronus. The Southwest Plant is closer to them, and that is where they are going to be getting their water from. So, an increase in flow at the Southwest Plant ends up coming at a fortuitous time for them because they are looking to buy some of our effluent from that Southwest Plant.

Why are they interested in buying the effluent?

Cronus Fertilizer is proposing to build just west of Tuscola. Contemporary fertilizer manufactures use natural gas as a primary ingredient, and with that natural gas, there is a lot of energy coming into the process. So, they end up evaporating a lot of water just to keep their equipment cool. If they didn’t do that, the temperature would increase too much and they wouldn’t get the results they want. Overall, they are looking at buying 6.3 million gallons a day of our treated effluent. Of that, about 80 percent will be boiled away and evaporated and the remaining 20 percent will still be discharged and have to meet discharge limits.

They could be using water from other sources, but they approached us about the idea of reusing our effluent, which is water already coming out of the Mahomet Aquifer. This way the water will get a second use—reuse, if you will—down in Tuscola. And Cronus doesn’t have to draw new water out of the aquifer. That is the advantage of reusing effluent.

How would the effluent be transported, and who is responsible for that infrastructure?

Champaign and Tuscola are 20 miles apart, but it happens that our treatment plant and their proposed fertilizer plant are literally north and south relative to each other. So, they are looking at building a 20-mile, 2 ft-diameter pipe that would connect up our treatment plant to their fertilizer plant. They would design, build, and operate that pipeline.

The reason Cronus is in this situation is somewhat interesting. They are proposing to build the fertilizer plant in Tuscola because there are two or three large natural gas pipelines that cross there. But Tuscola doesn’t have a very good water supply. They are not on top of the aquifer anymore. They get their drinking water from a pipeline from the Champaign-Urbana area—from the Bondville wells of Illinois American Water. But the drinking water pipe is not large enough to handle a 6-million-gallon-a-day increase. So, they would be looking at a new pipe either way.  

What changes will UCSD have to make at the plant to move water through the pipeline?

We will need to put in some good size pumps that could pump the water 20 miles south down to Tuscola. That’s the first big infrastructure exclusively for the benefit of Cronus. But we would get reimbursed for that. We get more than reimbursed for that. That’s one of the reasons we are interested in doing this. Not only does it help protect the aquifer, but the payments that Cronus is proposing would help our bottom line.

When we were looking into this scenario, one of the things we became acutely aware of is that there is great sensitivity to not going to zero discharge, even in times of drought. Our rate payers and our board and everybody who commented would like to see some continuing flow to the creeks. To accommodate that, we are building a storage lagoon at our Southwest Plant. The storage lagoon would fill up when there is a lot of rain and moisture in the spring and then would be there holding our final effluent in quantity in case of a drought like we had in 2012.

That lagoon would be another bit of infrastructure that USCD would look into building that would benefit Cronus. Again, though, we would be compensated for that construction project. But in the long run, that is something the sanitation district will benefit from. We know that Champaign and Savoy are growing towards the southwest, so we know the flows are going to be increasing there. When that lagoon is no longer needed to get us through a drought while still meeting Cronus’s demand, we would use it to store influent instead. The lagoon would be turned into what we call an equalization basin, which would allow us to store high volumes of flow so that we don’t have to treat it that same day. We could treat it when our flows are more reasonable. My successor, or my successor’s successor, is going to benefit from that lagoon being built. 

Check back here for part two of our interview to learn about how the State Revolving Loan Fund features in this story and how the district determined the market value of their effluent. 

Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need

In a previous post, we shared tips to help you lay the groundwork for a successful rate approval process. The strategies focused on gaining public support for your operations as a whole so customers understand its value when it came time to ask for additional funds. Following these will help you gain community buy-in, but how you present a rate increase proposal will still play a vital role in ensuring you have the rates you need. 

Here are a few things to remember while you are developing your communication strategy:

  • Timing is key. Community events, especially elections, can have a significant influence on the success of an increase.
  • Anticipating customer concerns and providing answers to questions about the need for the increase, cost efficiency, and how the change will affect individuals up front can do a lot to misunderstandings and foster public support.
  • Whether you're talking to a customers or the board, your messages should be succinct and consistent. Statements like, "Water reliability is at risk due to the need to upgrade the distribution system," clearly convey what is at stake and what actions can be taken.
  • Your local media can be a beneficial partner in utility communication, particularly if you have taken steps to cultivate a relationship.
  • Working with community stakeholders like environmental groups, industries, and even neighboring utilities can lend credibility to your messages and create champions for the rate adjustment. 

For more suggestions, read this report from an expert panel discussion at the 2014 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference.