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WaterOperator.org Blog

The State of California Drinking Water

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California has long been an epicenter of water issues, but the current megadrought and chronic infrastructure underfunding has brought the crisis to a head. According to a recently published study, California's water systems are beginning to fail across the state. Medium and small-sized public water systems are especially vulnerable.

The report claims to be the first comprehensive analysis of how safe water is provided in California. The study sampled 2,779 public water systems and nearly half proved to be at some risk of failing to provide safe drinking water. Roughly one-third of state small water systems sampled in the study were found to potentially contain contaminants like nitrate and arsenic

The greatest takeaway from the findings was that more funding is needed and that investments should prioritize the most at-risk and underserved communities. However, in the short term, bottled water or home filtration systems could be provided to communities that need drinking water immediately, according to the report. Long-term solutions to these problems include enhancing water treatment, consolidating small and underperforming water systems, and recruiting experts that can advise communities on how to improve their systems.

Maintaining Customer Satisfaction

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Maintaining customer satisfaction can go overlooked when operators are busy tending to the daily needs of their facility, however good customer relationships are an important component to any well run utility. Community trust improves cooperation under emergencies and helps customers to do their part in caring for their system. When changes to the utility are made such as a new infrastructure project or a long awaited rate adjustments, customers will more easily hop on board. Not to mention, an unhappy customer can lead to unnecessary public relations (PR) challenges.

In Hartsville, South Carolina one business owner watched for a month as a sinkhole slowly took over her car lot. The owner first called her Water and Sewer Authority in September reaching out about her growing concerns. She made five additional calls into October until finally contacting her local news channel for help. Swiftly after the news channel reached out to the Authority, workers were sent to fix the sinkhole.

In Darlington, South Carolina a pair of homeowners brought their sewer system into the public eye under equally pressing conditions. The city received unprecedented rainstorms in October leading to excess stormwater runoff. Under these conditions, many homeowners experienced sewage backups. Despite the city's ongoing efforts to manage overflows, the backups brought the system into an unwanted spot light. A Sanitary Sewer Overflow Response Plan can help for incidents such as these.

While we can do our best to avoid these incidents, accidents happen. When they do, good communication and listening skills can make a difficult situation much easier. How to Keep Customers Happy in Solution H2O encourages utilities to establish a good public presence prior to these events. When services are disrupted, the article encourages utility leaders to step forward and reassure customers that their complaints are being addressed. We also recommend the supervisor follow up with impacted customers after the issue has been resolved. Many of the negative articles we see published in local news can be avoided by following the tips suggested in the American Water Works Association's publication Trending in an Instant

Florida Security Incident Highlights Need for Cybersecurity Precautions

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Oldsmar, Florida made national headlines after experiencing a remote breach of their chemical control system earlier this year.

The hacker, whose identity and intent has not yet been identified, increased the sodium hydroxide feed by more than 100-fold, but the change was quickly overridden by the operator who saw the breach occur. The operator then disabled remote access and contacted local authorities.

This technical brief from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (shared via Michigan WEA) provides an in-depth overview of incident as well as potential broader impacts, including attacks inspired by the methods used in Oldsmar.

This is just the most recent example of hackers exploiting utility cybersecurity vulnerabilities and undoubtedly you may be wondering if your system is doing enough to prevent this type of intrusion or has the safeguards in place to respond in the event of a breach.

The U.S. EPA released a new Cybersecurity Best Practices page and we recommend the Cybersecurity Incident Action Checklist as the best place to begin your own self-assessment.

Featured Video: Infusing Innovation into the DNA of Our Culture

There are many factors that drive the current utility model for wastewater operations. With traditional values in play, we have reached difficult economic and operational challenges. In order to address these challenges, we must adapt a new mindset and new utility model to push affordability for water customers, better equipment management, and increased compliancy.

Adapting a more innovative approach and mindset:
Our current utility practices suggest that our societal and business values coincide with "extraction, use, and waste disposal". This creates a motivation that is, at bare minimum, driven by public engagement, capital investment, and operations & maintenance. As a result our current water resources are being utilized inefficiently and ultimately running low. We must instead adapt a Resource Recovery business model for a circular economy. Focus must be shifted from regulatory compliance, utility impact, and traditional utility models to pivot toward ecological uplift, collective impact, and a transformative entrepreneurial business model. This new business model should include focus on resource recovery and watershed health as well as pump, plant, and pipe health.

The start of a new, innovative, and effective approach might be slow but can grow exponentially. Water organizations must start with efficiency and work their way to optimization, which will lead into investments for bigger ideas and new intellectual property such as smart meters, efficient pumps, proper monitoring equipment, better facilities, and so forth. Collective cooperation and corresponding mindsets will keep the industry on the same track with the addition of new water personnel and management turnover.

In this week’s featured video by the Water Research Foundation, Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, Deputy General Manager at Clean Water Services, presents a case study for how her organization is improving utility functionality through a culture of innovation.

Collaborating Effectively with Board Members

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To protect public health and maintain reliable services, operators and board members, or other governing bodies, must collaborate effectively. This collaboration is essential to successfully establish and execute short-term and long-term system goals. In this blog post, we will discuss how to improve collaboration between board members and operators by distinguishing responsibilities between the two groups and providing communication tips for operators.

RESPONSIBILITIES

To work effectively in any team, each member must understand their own responsibilities and how those responsibilities are distinguished from the responsibilities of others. The primary role of board members is to ensure the system provides reliable and compliant services by setting policies and goals, maintaining finances, and communicating important utility information to customers. Their responsibilities include:

Management: Board members are in charge of hiring, retaining, and contracting qualified workers. They must set policies (pg. 9) and goals that allow the utility to operate efficiently and legally. Evaluating these goals regularly will ensure that the system can maintain a desired level of service, protect source water, apply appropriate asset management programs, and keep customers informed. Boards should operate ethically and make sure records are retained properly. To do all of this, each board member should facilitate active participation in decision making while acting as a good team member for the utility. They must also acquire the required knowledge to fulfill these duties.

Financing: Decision makers must maintain budgets, monitor spending, and ensure that the system will have enough money to meet both present and future needs. When necessary, boards are in charge of acquiring the funds to finance infrastructure projects and other activities required by the system. Any major contracts must also be approved and properly recorded by the board.

Communication: Board members must keep customers informed on ongoing projects, system services, and potential emergencies. They should act as the liaison between the system's staff and the community. Additional responsibilities include maintaining transparent communication to the public through open meetings that have been scheduled with appropriate public notice and an organized agenda. By publishing meeting minutes and key decisions, customers can remain informed and provide additional input.

After board members have established the financial and managerial policies for the system, it is the operator’s responsibility to implement and enforce those policies. Operators must develop, update, and execute maintenance plans and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that meet board policies and regulatory compliance. These procedures will help staff facilitate daily operations, monitor the system, and maintain detailed records of the system’s status as well as any financial expenditures. Operators must also maintain, monitor, and replace existing assets. While both operators and board members should possess a sufficient education to manage the facility, operators must do so by upholding their certification license. In addition to these tasks, it’s important for operators to keep board members informed of system updates and needs.

COMMUNICATION

To effectively collaborate and communicate as a team, board members and operators should attend regularly scheduled meetings. The Nevada Bureau of Health Protection Services recommends board members schedule these meetings on the same day once every month. During meetings customers can discuss concerns with board members, board member can inform customers of changes to the system, and operators can provide updates to their board. Successful meetings should always be conducted to comply with the region’s Open Meeting Laws and to follow a pre-written, detailed agenda.

Before any meeting the board’s secretary should collaborate with operators and other board members to produce a clearly written agenda that will include discussion topics, action items, and time for public comment. This is the time where operators can schedule to bring forth concerns, needs, and system updates. The Environmental Finance Center hosted an excellent webinar in 2016 on successful communication with board members. The webinar describes what topics and details are important to discuss at meetings and what are not. The webinar also demonstrates how policies are made and updated during these meetings. The following figure was taken from this webinar:

Board and Staff Relationship

When an operators bring up concerns, requests for funding, or updates on the system, they should do so with the following strategies:

Presenting the Update or Issue:

Proposing Solutions to Challenges:

  • Provide reasonable options to resolve system issues and clearly explain the risks involved in not taking action. Describe how the proposed solution will resolve the issue.
  • When the solution involves replacing new equipment, explain estimated life cycle costs in addition to upfront costs. Identify where the funding to finance the solution will come from and where that will leave the system financially afterword.
  • Understand how proposed solutions and projects will affect other funding needs in the community. Explain how the solution will benefit the community as a whole.
  • Offer the board a non-technical explanation of why the proposed solution is required so they can relay this information to customers.

Other Tips:

  • When operators don't know the answer to questions from the board, it’s best to offer to investigate the answer later rather than guess. Waiting to provide an accurate answer limits confusion and unnecessary conflict.
  • Board members are often unfamiliar with the daily operations of the utility. It can help improve collaboration to offer tours of the facility that demonstrate operating requirements and updated conditions of the plant. Alternatively, operators can invite board members to attend training classes and conferences. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) also offers water and wastewater guides for the non-operator that can act as a starting point for this technical knowledge.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. When board members can communicate their opinions openly it will lead to reciprocation and more effective problem solving.
  • Compromise!

When collaboration becomes difficult, remember that both operators and boards have the same goal: protecting public health and ensuring the longevity of the system. While board members can face different pressures than operators, they still want to maintain this goal. Elizabeth Dietzmann with the Kansas Rural Water Association has written two excellent articles for operators on How to Manage a Micromanaging Board and How to Manage a Problem Rural Water Board Member. The latter addresses “No Show” members, “Blabbermouths”, the “Angry Bird”, and other problem members.

Remember that communication doesn’t have to be limited to monthly meetings. Operators can provide weekly email updates or use phone calls to inform boards of important issues. For additional resources on board responsibilities check out RCAP’s Big Guide for Small Systems: A Resource for Board Members. As operators maintain their own continuing education requirements, they can also encourage board members to attend any upcoming RCAP board training that will help them brush up on their job duties and stay up to date on the industry.

Developing an Asset Management Program

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Asset management is a critical component to the short and long-term success of every water and wastewater utility regardless of size or system type. When a system understands the condition of its assets, in addition to present and future projected needs, the utility can make informed decisions about infrastructure operations, management, and investments. These decisions will minimize expenditures, equipment failures, and risk to public health while promoting reliability, resiliency, compliance, and customer satisfaction. Asset management moves utilities from reactive to proactive decision making and allows systems to get the most out of what they have.

If your facility has never developed an asset management plan or it’s been quite some time since you’ve last revised your plan, we’ve highlighted our favorite resources to get you back on track. A well-developed plan includes asset inventories, operation and maintenance tasks, emergency response and contingency planning, comprehensive financial plans, succession planning, and an understanding of current and future service level goals. Without addressing the technical, managerial, and financial management of your system, your plan will be incomplete. So without further ado, here’s our favorite resources to help you improve your understanding of asset management and develop your own program.

What is Asset Management?

Developing an Asset Management Plan

Writing Your Plan

Additional Help: Asset Assessment, Financial Planning, and Program Review

Developing a new plan can seem like an intimidating project, however utilities will ultimately improve their services and decision making capacity while saving time, resources, and money. If your system needs help developing or assessing a program, check out the EPA’s list of technical and financial assistance providers or contact WaterOperator.org to have help finding a provider. The EPA maintains a list of capacity development contacts that can answer any questions about specific requirements of your primacy agency.

To find additional information on asset management, visit our resource library. You can use the category filter to narrow down your search by topics in asset management, financial management, utility management, and more. Our library can also be filtered by resource type such as manuals, videos, or templates. The other filter options can refine your results to a specific host organization or state. Check out our tutorial to use the library to the best of its capabilities.

What Real Estate Agents Need to Know About Small Public Water Systems

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If you're a real estate agent representing the buyer or the seller of a commercial property (not a private home), you may have questions about how to best inform your client about a property's water system during a property transaction. A good place to start is to understand if this property has its own water supply (typically a water well), and if so, if it might be a public water system. Public water systems are required by law to meet the requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure the water is safe to drink.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a public drinking water system is defined as “a system for the provision of water to the public for human consumption." If such a system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves an average of at least 25 individuals daily at least 60 days out of the year, then it is a public water system. The 15 connections part of the definition is for a community system, meaning a water supply providing water to at least 15 residential services where people live (their homes). The only examples of a community water system that you might deal with for property sales would likely be a mobile home park or apartment complex with at least 15 residences or 25 residents AND its own water supply.

The rest are all considered “non-community” systems. For non-community systems, which are commercial private properties that are not residential, it means that if the property has its own water supply and at least 60 days a year has 25 people who could be drinking the water, then it is a public water supply. Examples of non-community systems include places many people stop at frequently (transient systems), like restaurants, gas stations, motels, churches, state parks, or rest areas; or places where people spend their day for work, school, or care (non-transient systems), like factories, schools, day cares, or businesses. So there are two types of non-community systems, transient non community water systems (TNC’s) and non-transient, non-community water systems (NTNC’s). TNC’s serve at least 25 people at least 60 days a year, but they are not necessarily the same people. NTNC’s serve at least 25 of the same people at least 60 days a year.

To complicate matters a bit, TNC’s and NTNC’s may have different certification, testing and reporting requirements, although you will need to check with your individual state as the requirements may vary state to state. In Illinois, for examples, the state regulates licensed operators differently for community and non-community systems.

It is important that you understand these differences and can share them with the potential buyer. They may have no experience with managing a public water supply, and being informed in advance and understanding these responsibilities is a critical component of any property transaction. If a property is a public water supply, we would advise the potential buyer or seller to have an inspection conducted to learn more about the system (and help you promote the property if the inspection report is positive). Some states may require a public water supply review or have disclosure requirements when a property changes hands; be sure you check with your state agency.

Other Considerations

It may be that a sale hinges or is held up because it is a public water supply. A possible alternative is to contract with a management entity that has licensed operators and would be responsible for the water supply. Another consideration, if there is a community water supply nearby, would be to determine the feasibility of connecting to that existing supply, thus becoming a water customer instead of a water provider.

In addition, the state regulatory agency may provide informational resources for buyers, sellers and their agents. The Wisconsin DNR, for example, offers a handbook for non-transient, non-community (NTNC) systems as well as one for transient, non-community (TNC) systems. Washington State Department of Health also provides fact sheets to advise parties involved in real estate transactions on owning and managing small water systems.

You can find more resources in our document search by selecting “Non-community systems” as the category, and then using the terms “owner” or “guidance” in the keyword filter. If you have any questions, you can also contact our staff (info@wateroperator.org) for additional help finding information. 

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

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Interested in a new way to tell your water system stories? Do you want to reach out to a diverse audience using maps and data in order to help them visualize and more completely understand the issues? Then a Story Map might be just the ticket.

In the past year or so, we at WaterOperator.org have collected examples of how ESRI's Story Maps are being used by water utilities, agencies, states and local governments. Here are few of our favorites:

This Story Map from Cobb County, GA answers the age-old question, "Where do we get our drinking water from?"

And this one from Clarkstown, NY uses all sorts of graphics, 3-D visualizations and maps to illustrate how it maintains its vast MS4 stormwater system. 

The USEPA has also been using this new tool to collect case studies and utility stories for its Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities

The state of California Division of Drinking Water is using Story Maps to present lead sampling results for its public schools, updated monthly to reflect additional samples they receive. 

And here is an example of a tribal Story Map that shows how the Samish Indian Nation is building resilience for the future impact of climate change in Washington State. 

For even more inspiring examples, Esri hosts a website of contest-winning Story Maps and a Gallery of Story Maps using creative approaches and best practices in a wide range of subjects and industries. 

Story Maps are a great way to combine maps with text, images, videos and more to create impactful stories to leverage support for your water system and to communicate effectively with your audience. Story Maps are part of ArcGIS Online, Esri's cloud-based mapping and GIS platform, and you can register for a free ArcGIS public account here.

Ready to get started? The Learn ArcGIS website has this series of three 30-60 minute lessons, and/or you can watch the video below, and/or read this recent blog post on How to Make a Story Map. 

Featured Video: Drought Response and Recovery in the Town of Castine, ME

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This week's featured video tells the story of how  the small town of Castine, ME headed off recent drought and infrastructure challenges - a story that may be adaptable to other small systems nationwide. This video is featured on the USEPA's Drought Response and Recovery StoryMap Project for Water Utilities (ArcGIS) and is included as a case study resource in their recently updated Drought Response and Recovery Guide for Water Utilities guide. 

Ethics for Small Water Systems

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Being a small town operator takes strong character and a community spirit, but there are always those few who make it rough on all of us. Whether it is doctoring compliance reports, siphoning off grant money for personal use, or, as this recent news article reports, using inside knowledge and/or tools to avoid water bills, water operators can sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

That is certainly what happened in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, back in 2000. According to the inquiry report, water operators there "engaged in a host of improper operating practices, including including failing to use adequate doses of chlorine, failing to monitor chlorine residuals daily, making false entries about residuals in daily operating records, and misstating the locations at which microbiological samples were taken. The operators knew that these practices were unacceptable and contrary to MOE guidelines and directives.  In the end, over 2300 people (about half the population of the town!) contracted a virulent strain of E. Coli, and 7 people ended up dying. 

While this example is extreme, it is a good reminder that unethical behavior can result in very real, and tragic, consequences, for the community as well as for the operators involved - and this goes for even small oversights or infractions. This is why it is important to be reminded of ethical responsibilities on a regular basis, whether through required trainings, or a review of an operator Code of Ethics. 

Wondering what is included in a Operator's Code of Ethics?  Some states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia offer them, as do some operator's association such as the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association and the New England Water Works Association (they also have one for laboratory personnel). NEWWA also has a list of offenses that should invoke enforcement action against operators, including suspension or revocation of certification. In addition, NEIWPCC has a report on the results of a nationwide survey on how operator discipline & rule enforcement is conducted. 

It is also a good idea to attend ethics trainings when they are available in your area. You can check for these trainings using the keywork "ethics" (and then click on "view list") on our event calendar

We here at WaterOperator.org are interested in finding more about how to support ethical conduct at small systems - not just for board members or government officials, but for everyone involved in producing or cleaning water in the interest of public health. See our ethics checklist above for ideas about how to support ethical behavior at your water system, and let us know if you have additional ideas.