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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.” 

Featured Video: Operator Math

In a lot of ways, the ability to do math is like the ability to use a muscle. You always have muscles, of course, but whether you're able to use a particular muscle or muscle group depends on how developed it is. In other words, it depends on how often you use those muscles, whether you're lifting weights regularly or just hauling around a heavy toolbox on a daily basis. Math is the same way. Sure, on any good day you can probably handle 2 + 2. But for more complicated problems, regular practice and a thorough understanding of the principles can help those equations go from a headache to a breeze. Since water and wastewater operators often find themselves calculating things like chemical doses, the volume of complicated objects, and rate of flow, keeping in good mathematic shape can go a long way to making your life easier. And of course, being in practice doesn't do any harm when it's time to sit for your exams either!

There are a lot of ways to brush up on your math skills, and sometimes it helps to try a couple until you find what works best for you. Our document database has collected math help in a wide variety of formats under the Certification/Exam Prep category. Use "math" (without the quote marks) in the keyword filter box to narrow it down to just math help. But if you're someone who needs to see someone else work the problem in order to get what's going on, this week's videos might be a particularly good fit.

Indigo Water Group, a water and wastewater operator trainer in Colorado, has created a playlist of videos in which their owner works common water and wastewater math problems. Most of these videos are short and broken down by kind of problem. The exception is an hour long video devoted to wastewater math. At the time of this writing, the other videos in the playlist covered unit conversions, geometry, dosing, reducing MLSS concentrations, velocity and HRT, and digester problems. But more topics have been slowly added over time, so there may be more in the future. The video below links the entire playlist, which starts with three short unit conversion videos.

The YouTube channel CAwastewater takes a slightly different approach. Instead of breaking the videos down by topic, the channel owner (who is an operator himself) breaks down the videos by the state exam level where the problems are most likely to appear. He has playlists for the California exam levels 1, 2, and 3, and one playlist that combines the math for 4 and 5. Though these videos are aimed at California wastewater operators, both water and wastewater operators from across the country will likely get something out of them. The individual videos are about 5-10 minutes long, and the playlists are about a half hour to an hour. Choose the playlist that looks most interesting to you.

Hopefully, these operator math videos will help you round out your mathematical fitness routine, leaving you well prepared for operations challenges and certification exams alike. And if there's a great free math resource that we didn't mention here that you want to be sure we know about, let us know in the comments!

Many Organizations Offer Resources for Tribal Utilities

In previous articles, we’ve talked about tribal resources available through USEPA and our own site, and resources that can be used to combat common difficulties faced by tribal utilities. Below you'll find a round-up of funding opportunities for tribal projects on infrastructure, local environment, or other utility-related projects. We've also included a list of agencies and organizations that can assist such projects.

Grants and the agencies that offer them

Of course, federal agencies don’t just offer technical assistance. Many offer grants and low-interest loans as well. If you know exactly what’s needed for your system but have no idea how you’d pay for it, these programs may be something you want to look into.

USDA Rural Development Grants

The Water and Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program – “Provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas.” Federally recognized tribes with lands in rural areas are eligible for these grants. Tribes on state reservations may be eligible as well. (See page 50 of this report for details.)

Individual Water & Wastewater Grants – These grants “provide government funds to households residing in an area recognized as a colonia before October 1, 1989.  Grant funds may be used to connect service lines to a residence, pay utility hook-up fees, install plumbing and related fixtures, i.e. bathroom sink, bathtub or shower, commode, kitchen sink, water heater, outside spigot, or bathroom, if lacking… This program is only eligible in states with Colonias, and those are Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.”

Water & Waste Disposal Technical Assistance & Training Grants - These grants can help a local, regional, or national non-profit organization provide training and technical assistance to tribal communities.


AmeriCorps Indian Tribes Grants – Though the window for this fiscal year’s grants has closed, you can see typical funding priorities on the 2016 grant page.


Indian Community Development Block Grant Program – This program “provides eligible grantees with direct grants for use in developing viable Indian and Alaska Native Communities, including decent housing, a suitable living environment, and economic opportunities, primarily for low and moderate income persons.” Community facilities and infrastructure construction, including water and sewer facilities, are covered by the grant.

Border Community Capital Initiative – Though this program is currently hosted on HUD’S website, it’s actually a collaborative effort between HUD, USDA Rural Development, and the Department of the Treasury – Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund). “The Initiative's goal is to increase access to capital for affordable housing, business lending and community facilities in the chronically underserved and undercapitalized U.S./Mexico border region. Specifically, it will provide direct investment and technical assistance to community development lending and investing institutions that focus on affordable housing, small business and community facilities to benefit the residents of colonias.”


Indian Environmental General Assistance Program – Grants intended for “planning, developing and establishing environmental protection programs in Indian country, and for developing and implementing solid and hazardous waste programs on tribal lands.” 

Drinking Water State Revolving Funds – A portion of the Drinking Water Revolving Funds distributed to the states are available for tribal grants and loans. You will have to contact the program run by your state for details on how to apply. See the “View contacts by state” function at the bottom of this page. Or Google your state and the words “state revolving fund” to find the webpage for your local program.

And So Much More – The USEPA’s tribal page has collected several tribe-eligible grant programs into one convenient location. Click on the Water tab to view grant programs for beach monitoring, drinking water, underground injection control programs, wastewater, water pollution, water quality standards, water security, watershed programs, and wetlands. Depending on where you are and the problems your tribe wants to address, the Toxic, Environmental Multimedia, Enforcement & Compliance Assurance, and Place-Based Programs tabs may be of interest as well.


Professional assistance for tribal projects

While there are a lot of valuable federal resources available to tribes, you may have local or regional non-governmental organizations available to you as well. Many of them focus on broader water-related topics like environmental management or GIS training, though there are a few specifically aimed at utilities as well. To find non-governmental technical assistance providers specific to water utilities, you can visit our tribal technical assistance provider page and scroll down to the regional and tribal organizations. 

Tribal Utility Governance Program (TUG) – This tribe-specific utility program provided training and technical assistance on utility management and financial and managerial capacity issues for personnel of tribally-owned and operated public water systems. Though the training sessions have now been completed and the program has ended, you can find the program manual and recordings of the three training modules here.

Amigos Bravos – This New Mexico non-profit is a statewide water conservation organization that is inspired by and works closely with the state’s tribes and native Hispanic populations. They also work with other local communities and urban environments. They are best known as a river and water protection organization.

Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals – ITEP, based at Northern Arizona University, offers events, training, and resources on a wide variety of tribal environmental topics, including air quality (indoor and outdoor), waste & response, climate change, and energy, with occasional resources dedicated specifically to water topics. In addition to their training, they’ve collected an online database of resources on tribal or environmental issues, as well as a resource center and several tribal partnership groups.

Tribal Pollution Prevention Network – Modeled on the USEPA Pollution Prevention program, this tribe-focused network is focused on reducing the environmental and health risks associated with the generation of waste in tribal lands. Membership in the national network is open to environmental professionals from tribal entities, local state and federal agencies, and not-for-profit organizations.

Salish Kootenai College Hydrology Program – Native Americans interested in the field of hydrology may want to check out SKC’s program, which offers both Associate of Science and Bachelor’s degrees. Hydrology is the study of the earth’s water and its movement in relation to land. It’s not a field directly related to water utilities, but having a hydrologist around who understands the water in your region can be a huge asset to a utility facing certain source water problems.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium – Though Salish Kootenai College is the only American Indian college currently offering a degree specific to water issues, many of the consortium’s colleges offer environmental science degrees and certificates. Most of those programs emphasize a mix of western science and traditional environmental management approaches. – This organization is facilitated by the non-profit National Tribal Geographic Information Support Center (NTGISC) with support from Wind Environmental Services, a 100% Native American owned and operated GIS firm. It offers a variety of GIS support services specifically for tribes, as well as an annual conference focused on tribal GIS topics. (Tribes wanting to get started with GIS might also want to check out the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ GIS training events.)

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Sneaking in one federal agency after all. The USACE Tribal Nations Program has two main goals: to consult with tribes that may be affected by USACE projects or policies, and to reach out and partner with tribes on water resources projects. Tribes that want to know more about how to plan a water resources project with USACE will want to check out this guide and their Planning Community Toolbox. These resources will be of particular interest to tribes interested in large-scale environmental restoration projects.

Didn't find what you need? We can help.

Though tribal utilities face their own unique challenges, there are opportunities for tribes as well. This article only scrapes the surface of resources available to tribes who want to work on their infrastructure, local environment, or other utility-related projects. For more tribal resources, see our previous blog entries. And if there’s a tribal organization or program out there that you think we should know about, email us, or let us know in the comments. If you’d like a hand finding resources, drop us a line.


Featured Video: Coliform Sampling Best Practices

Have you ever had a coliform sample come back positive, gone through the trouble and expense of re-sampling, and discovered your first result was a false positive? If so, you know what a frustrating, time consuming, and expensive process it can be. One way to avoid having this happen to you is to be very rigorous in your sampling technique when you collect the sample. This video from our partners at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) walks you through the 13 steps of total coliform sampling, and discusses how to find a good sampling site.

For more RCAP videos, visit their channel on Vimeo. For more on the Total Coliform and Revised Total Coliform Rules, see the EPA's website.

Featured Video: Community Onsite Options

If you live in a community with a large number of failing septic tanks, you're probably already familiar with the downsides of these systems: the damage to local water quality, the threats to public health. The smell. What you may not know is what you can do about it. Of course, one option is to convert the entire community to a conventional wastewater collection and treatment system. This prevents putting the entire community at the mercy of that one guy who just won't pump or repair his tank, and it ensures that a professional is involved in the wastewater treatment process.

But what if a conventional sewer system is logistically or financially impractical for your community? Are you stuck dealing with smelly, dirty water leaks forever? Thankfully, the answer is no. This 17-minute video discusses the opportunities offered by community onsite management systems. These systems combine the effluent from individual septic tanks into a community-wide leachfield, and often involve mandating activities such as basic maintenance and monitoring. The video includes profiles of five communities (most of them rural) that successfully rehabilitated failing septic systems and combined them into a community onsite management system.

If you're interested in learning more about septic systems and decentralized wastewater systems (which involve community-level septic options), browse our document database using the category Decentralized WW Systems. You can also visit NESC's wastewater page for more on the septic resources they collect and offer.

Featured Video: Water Utility Response On-The-Go

As winter gives way to spring, many of us look forward to the traditional activities associated with warmer weather: cookouts, swimming, gardening, camping. Of course, for some of us, spring and summer will bring less welcome events: storms, flooding, droughts, and extreme heat. As we approach the turning of the season, it doesn't hurt to refresh our memories on the resources available when the weather turns not-so-pleasant.

Water Utility Response On-The-Go is a site specifically formatted to be comfortably viewed on smart phones and other mobile devices. The homepage displays a menu of links for tracking severe weather, contacting response partners, responding to incidents, taking notes and recording damage, informing incident command, and accessing additional planning info. The weather tracking and response partners links use location data to help you access forecasts and contacts specific to your area. The Respond to Incidents section includes action checklists for drought, earthquake, extreme cold and winter storms, extreme heat, flooding, hurricanes, tornado, tsunami, volcano, and wildfire. The option labeled Take Notes and Record Damage leads to a section that includes a generic damage assessment form, while Inform Incident Command includes ICS forms 213 and 214 (the General Message and Activity Log, respectively), as well as additional information on Incident Command. The section on additional planning info includes links to EPA webpages on emergencies/incidents, planning, response, and recovery, as well as to WARN and mutual aid info.

Some of the external links from the site are not formatted for mobile viewing, and the .pdf forms may require an Adobe Reader app if you wish to fill them out on your mobile device. However, the site overall is well organized and easy to navigate, and can be a great tool for utilities dealing with weather emergencies and natural disasters. For a visual overview of how the site works, see the EPA’s video, below.

Interested in attending training or finding more information on emergency planning? Search our calendar and document database using the category “Water Security/Emergency Response.”

Featured Video: Lockout/Tagout

Why do things never seem to break when the weather's nice out? Somehow, whether it's the roof over your house, the battery in your car, or the machinery at your utility, things always seem to have a way of breaking down right when it's pouring rain, or there's a raging blizzard, or the temperature's over 100. Probably it's just that those are the breakdowns we find more memorable, while the quick fixes on sunny spring mornings fade into the background. Whatever the reason, the important thing to remember is to be safe, no matter what life is throwing at you while you're out getting your hands dirty. One important maintenance safety practice is known as lockout/tagout, or what OSHA now calls the Control of Hazardous Energy. This practice helps ensure that moving parts don't move when you're working on them (unless you want them to), and that no electricity is flowing through equipment that can shock you while you're repairing it. This week's video introduces the concept a little further, and explains how vital it is to worker safety. You can view it on YouTube here.

For more on lockout/tagout, see the OSHA page on hazardous energy. For more on lockout/tagout at water utilities, search our document database using the category "Safety" and the word "lockout" (without the quote marks) typed in the keyword search box.

Featured Video: Lead and Copper Sampling

For the past three weeks, we've talked about the dangers to drinking water quality posed by water storage facilities, and discussed what you can do to combat them. But there's another source of drinking water contamination that's gotten a lot more press in the past few years, and that's the distribution system. Lead and copper pipes are known for their ability to leach metal into the water they contain. When the pipes are particularly exposed or the water chemistry is particularly favorable, they can leach a lot. If your customers have an increased interest in getting their water tested---or you'd like a refresher on how lead and copper sampling works yourself---this video from AWWA can be a great place to start. The two-and-a-half minute video briefly outlines the basic provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule, and goes on to discuss the proper technique for collecting lead and copper samples.

The Quick Reference Guides mentioned in the video can be found on the USEPA website here. The page with additional resources on the rule is here. To see what consumer information resources other utilities and states have developed for the Lead and Copper Rule, search our document database using the category Lead and Copper and the type Factsheets/Case Studies.

Featured Video: Water Quality in Storage Facilities

In the previous two weeks' featured videos, our partners at RCAP have discussed how to conduct periodic water tank inspections, as well as what kinds of inspections tanks can or should receive. Though those videos made clear that preventing contamination is the primary focus of these inspections, they didn't go into detail regarding the kinds of water quality degradation that can happen in drinking water storage facilities. This one does. Though inspections are discussed, the focus is on the biological, chemical, and physical factors in storage tanks that can affect drinking water quality. Water operators play an essential role in protecting the public health of their communities by ensuring that drinking water is clean and safe to drink. Understanding the possible contamination or degradation factors in your storage facility can help you ensure that your treated water is still clean and drinkable when it reaches your customers' taps.

For more on water storage tank issues, search our document database using the phrase "water storage tank" (without the quote marks) in the keyword search filter.

Featured Video: Types of Storage Tank Inspections

Last week's video from our RCAP partners discussed the steps of a thorough periodic water tank inspection. This week, the topic returns, with a discussion of the types of tank inspection, including routine, periodic, and comprehensive inspections. The 4-minute video outlines the frequency and basic considerations of each kind of inspection, with photos and video of inspections carried out at various locations with various types of water tanks. Treated water storage facilities can be a weak link in the water quality chain. Don't let them slip into disrepair and ruin your hard work by causing contamination.

For more on water storage tank issues, search our document database using the phrase "water storage tank" (without the quote marks) in the keyword search filter. Or check back next week, when we feature another RCAP video on this topic!