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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs
It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example,Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.

Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers high school students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still in high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.

Serious Water Gaming

Serious Water Gaming
Interested in combining work with pleasure? Need a fun idea for a training session? Then take a look at this list of gaming opportunities (using the serious game approach) for water professionals.

Utility Management Simulation Game - free online game
Can you keep the utility from going bankrupt? Will service quality bring in more financial resources? What happens when your assumptions change? See how you would cope by playing the game

California Water Crisisboard game
This game introduces the politics of water and puts players in the driver’s seat as they take on drought. Participants assume the role of one of California’s three main regions — NorCal, SoCal and the Central Valley — all of which have different starting resources, strengths, weaknesses and strategies. Along the way, players are exposed to various challenges like special interest groups and population growth that reflect the real-world complexities involved with resolving an environmental crisis. 

The Groundwater Commons Game - free role-play Excel-assisted
Simulations of three major aquifer systems currently facing unsustainable demands—the Punjab (India/Pakistan), the Central Valley (USA), and the Murray-Darling Basin (Australia)—reveal tipping points where social norms and collective attitudes towards groundwater conservation shift abruptly with small changes in cultural values and enforcement provisions.  

The Best Dam Simulation Ever - free online game
This game will help you learn about the many uses of the Columbia River and how controlling the water behind the dams can affect each one.  

River Basin Balancerfree online game
This game developed by the Army Corps of Engineers offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin. 

Aqua Republica - free online game
While the world of Aqua Republica is fictitious, the challenges of sustainably managing a limited supply of water resources in a situation of growing demand between multiple users and uses are very much based on real life scenarios. Decisions involve developing urban infrastructure and agriculture based on water supply of the local river. 

Interested in how serious gaming can help water managers, utilities and other stakeholders resolve complex issues? Check out this article.

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Featured Video: The Science Behind Exploding Manhole Covers

Every season has its challenges for public works departments, and now that spring is just around the corner, it is pretty obvious that this past winter came with more than its fair share. Yet we are not in the clear quite yet, as this news story about two manhole explosions just a few weeks ago demonstrates. In fact, as winter winds down, accumulated road salt compounds corrode through underground electrical cables, causing sparks to ignite gases that can build up in confined spaces. With over 2,000 annual incidents in New York City alone, exploding manholes are not a joke: they can be dangerous, destructive and downright difficult to predict.

And while large cities like New York City are especially prone to these incidents due to aging infrastructure and the sheer amount of underground electrical cables present, small towns are definitely not immune. For example, in 2014 the tiny town of Sauget, Illinois (pop. 150) experienced an explosion so powerful manhold covers damaged overhead power lines.  

 Find out more about how road salt compounds contribute to this problem in this week's featured video.  

While explosions are the most dramatic hazard associated with manholes, research suggests that manholes are in general one of the most dangerous work locations for water system staff. In fact, according to AFSCME, fully one-third of all injuries/deaths of workers occur in or around manholes. Check out this safety presentation hosted by Michigan WEA for more information on the types of hazards presented by manholes and how to protect yourself from them. 

And if you have any lingering doubts about the force, and destructive power, of an expoding manhole, take a look at this video

Featured Video: Buried History - Wooden Water Mains

Featured Video: Buried History - Wooden Water Mains

There's quite a lot of talk these days about aging underground infrastructure, but I bet nobody is referring to archaeological finds! Long-abandoned wooden pipes left beneath older communities aren’t unheard of, but outdated utility plans typically don’t pinpoint their location and it is rare to dig one up, according to this Washington Post article. This week's featured video shows how the New York City Department of Design and Construction worked with Chrysalis Archaeology to preserve their 200-year old wooden water main "find", a portion of the first piped water system in the city. 

 

Wooden water mains have been found in rural areas and large and small towns across the country, from Baltimore to Philadelphia to Gladstone, Michigan and all the way to the West Coast as well. Some of these wooden pipes serviced customers for 100 years or more! Interested in finding out more? Check out this article about the era of wooden water pipes in Portland, Oregon. 

The Importance of Customer Outreach

The Importance of Customer Outreach
The more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with community and water leaders, a new study finds. In fact, constituents who received water‐related information from utility mailings or served on committees and boards had perceptions that were more aligned with leaders' concerns. This is why cutting outreach could be a big mistake for utilities of all sizes. 

Another study finding is that there is a real disconnect between the concerns of customers and that of water providers. Residents showed most concern about potential water shortages and high water bills, while their leaders were most concerned about deteriorating local water infrastructure. This was the case no matter where cities were located or what their water source was. 

From their end, residents have a good reason to be concerned about their water rates. The labor department has released findings that show water rates have increased 5.5% on average each year over the past decade, three times faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, water utilities are feeling the squeeze while trying to provide high quality water with aging or inadequate infrastructure. 

This disconnect is why it is crucial for utilities to talk to, and listen to, their ratepayers. Giving the public a voice in major decisions and communicating critical issues results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable. And that is good news for everyone. 

Interested in outreach resources? Type in "outreach" in our document database on WaterOperator.org or you can check out this recent listing.

Featured Video: An Inflow and Infiltration Reduction Program in Missouri

Featured Video: An Inflow and Infiltration Reduction Program in Missouri

Inflow and infitration (I/I) can be very costly for small communities, especially those communities with outdated combined wastewater/stormwater systems or collection systems in poor repair. According to this classic National Small Flows Clearinghouse article, I/I problems place additional burdens on these older and/or fragile systems because the extra water that seeps or flows into them can be very damaging, and, in some cases, even cause contamination issues.  

This week's featured video describes how the City of Columbia, Missouri is attempting to locate, identify, and correct improper connections and defects that cause these inflow and infiltration problems so that their system capacity improves, and sanitary sewer overflows and basement backups are eliminated.

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems
USEPA has released two new/updated interactive tools to help small systems retain and organize important operator knowledge as well as keep track of regular operation and maintenance tasks. In this way, when an operator takes a vacation, retires, or leaves a system, important knowledge about the system is preserved for those taking his or her place. 

The first tool to be released is an updated version of EPA's popular Preventive Maintenance Card File tool. This 857-page easy-to-access electronic version can be tailored to a system's needs. It includes fillable pdf logs for each month as well as logs for common daily, weekly and monthly tasks. In addition, it can provide detailed information about maintenance and operation, source water, emergencies, security, treatment processes, monitoring/sampling, storage, distribution, rules/regulations, operator certification, customer complaints, technology, supplies, important people and more.

The tool can be downloaded in its entirety as a zip file, or you can download individual months/files. If your system prefers a printed format, the logs can be printed out or you can opt to print out the original 2004 Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems here.

The second new tool, piloted last summer, is the Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet for Small Water Systems, found here. This tool also captures site-specific information to help systems maintain water quality in times of transition, but in a spreadsheet format. Tabs providing information on source water, technology, certification, neighboring utilities, suppliers, distribution info and more provide critical information in a quick and easy to read format, all in one place. The spreadsheet also includes a daily production well log, conversion tables and flushing/backflow/valve-exercising schedules.


In a recent webinar featuring these resources, Melinda Norris from Idaho Rural Water talked about how she has seen utility records written on walls and left on dusty barn shelves, creating situations where years of knowledge are at risk of being lost. For her, theses new tools will increase access and encourage operators to record and preserve critical information for newly hired operators or just for those needing help on a daily basis. 

These tools were developed by the EPA's Workforce Group to address an identified critical area of need for small systems: preventing the loss of years of accumulated system knowledge when an operator retires or leaves a system.

Focus on Chlorine Safety

Focus on Chlorine Safety

Chlorine is one of the most widely used industrial chemicals in the world today, with 13 million tons produced annually in the United States alone. And although there are alternative treatment methods, the majority of water systems still use some form of chlorine for disinfection because it offers an affordable and well understood means of eliminating waterborne diseases. In fact, filtration of drinking water plus the use of chlorine has been called one of the most significant public health advancements of the 20th century.

Yet every treatment technology has its risks, and it is critical to understand the dangers. That is why your employee safety training programs are so important. Here are some supplemental chlorine safety resources from our document library to help support an active chlorine safety/emergency response program at your plant. 

In addition, chlorine safety topics are covered on operator certification exams and are a critical component of operator trainings. You can use the keyword box to search our national training calendar for upcoming opportunities. 

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

There's a new hero in town: Utilities United Against Scams. In the past year, this national organization made up of more than 100 electric, gas, and water utilities, has successfully worked to disconnect more than four dozen 1-800 numbers tracked to scam artists and swindlers who pose as utility representatives threatening to shut off a customer's service unless bills are paid. The organization has also partnered with law enforcement and created materials and resources for utilities to use to warn their customers.

Why are these warnings so valuable?  A recent report published by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) found that people are particularly susceptible to utility scams. This, combined with a median financial loss of $500 — quite a sum for many customers of small systems — means that there is no incentive for this type of activity to decrease. In fact, according to a study by Hiya, utility scams rose 109 percent in 2016 alone. 

While only a handful of mostly larger water utilities are on the roster at this time, the AWWA is encouraging additional water utilities to sign up for a free membership in Utilities United Against Scams in order to pool resources with other systems to fight this growing problem and amplify public outreach. The organization also hopes to create a centralized database for fraud committed against utility customers that could prove useful to water systems of all sizes. 

To be sure, it is important for organizations such as UUAS to address concerns specific to water utilities, concerns that are different from the typical payment scams common to other utilities: mainly, imposters trying to gain access to homes and businesses with the intent to rob by claiming the need to check meters, test water or check pipes. The Middlesex Water Company advises customers to ask for a photo ID before allowing anyone into their home and Fraud.org suggests customers take these steps to protect themselves: always call the utility directly, never pay by wire transfer or prepaid cards and never give out personal information. 

In attempt to raise awareness of these pressing issues, UUAS has created the Consumer Guide to Imposter Utility Scams to educate leaders and consumers about the types of scams that are occurring across the country (phone, in-person and internet) as well as provide tips to share with community members to avoid scams and contact information for assistance in case a customer becomes a victim. 

Are you interested in finding out more about the utility scams that are showing up in your community? Check out this interactive Scam Tracker map from the Better Business Bureau. And customers aren't the only ones who can fall prey to crafty scammers: according to this article from Idaho Rural Water, there was an outbreak of scammers in 2012 tricking rural water operators into receiving "free samples" of water treatment products that they were later charged for!

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Featured Video: Using Decommissioned Wastewater Tanks for Fish Farming

Just when you think you've seen it all, someone comes up with a crazy idea that holds some promise. This just might be true in the case of a local aquaculture businessman, who, along with a Kentucky State University researcher, looked at outdated wastewater treatment plants and source water reservoirs and envisioned profitable fish farms! 

This week's featured video explains how Steve Mims and Tim Parrott used a USDA grant a few years ago to turn decommissioned wastewater plants into working aquaculture farms using treated effluent in digester tanks and daphnia (as fish food) from upgraded facilities that are often just next door. The tanks don't generate waste because the water cycles right back to the treatment plant.  

His big idea? To establish regional fish hatcheries through public-private partnerships, with young fingerlings sold to local farmers to raise in their own ponds all the while adding commercial-level fish and caviar production to the rural economies of Kentucky. So add fish farming to all the creative ways to recycle wastewater that people have been coming up with recently!  

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