Sustainable resilience is the ability and capacity to withstand adversity by having a healthy and viable drinking water or wastewater utility that can bounce back from difficult risk events that may impact a utility. In order for utilities to develop infrastructure that’s resilient to natural and human-based risk events, they also need to develop staff capacity to sufficiently operate and manage the utility, as well as ensure the system has adequate financial capacity.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that our nation cannot have resilient public drinking water and sanitary wastewater systems unless we have a strong workforce of operators, managers and governing leaders that are knowledgeable and use robust and planned management practices and procedures. The goal of resilience is to make sure drinking water and wastewater utilities can provide uninterrupted safe service that meets the demands of customers for as long as the utility provides such service.
According to the EPA, in summary, hundreds of thousands of skilled workers that comprise America’s Water Sector Workforce provide us with clean drinking water and safe wastewater treatment every day. Further, EPA is concerned about this workforce diminishing:
“Cities and communities across the country are facing critical staffing shortages for the operation and maintenance of essential drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Approximately one-third of drinking water and wastewater operators in the U.S. will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years and the water sector has been facing challenges with recruitment and retention of the skilled workers required for jobs in today’s high-tech environment.”
In addition to recruiting new workers, it is important to retain current operators by training them to be skilled workers that can perform the requirements for their jobs in today’s high-tech environment. The EPA has launched America’s Water Sector Workforce Initiative to work with federal, state, Tribal and local governments as well as public utilities, the private sector, water sector associations, community groups and educational institutions to prepare operators to be successful.
Two of the most frustrating issues for operators, especially for ones who work for small systems, are dealing with information management and meeting continuing operator education requirements. Frustrated operators are more apt to quit the profession. Through training and educational support, these operators can become proficient in both areas and not become as easily frustrated and quit the industry.
Documentation for a robust information management plan remains the most challenging and often overlooked aspect of a water treatment operator’s job. For example, the EPA and state regulatory agencies each have policies that require documentation of water testing and operator education. The testing requirements include the type of testing, training and the time documentation that must be maintained. Each state will have different requirements, so it’s critical that operators know what their state requirements are.
Some requirements, such as information documentation, will include the lab’s location that will do the testing, the type of sample, the paperwork needed to accompany the sample, and the delivery timeframe. It is imperative to complete the samples, paperwork and delivery in the timeframe requested. Make sure to retain a receipt for the sample shipment in case it is not completed as needed. This will provide the operator with documentation supporting the completion of requirements on their end. The return of results from the lab/state will provide guidance to the operator on additional requirements or compliance. These results are critical, and the operator must safely store this documentation. Storage of these results is important as it provides the community water quality history. Each year, the Midwest Assistance Program (MAP) holds many training events throughout Nebraska to teach operators how to manage information and the required regulatory documentation.
Training is also provided by MAP staff in Nebraska to help water operators complete continuing education requirements, another important facet of their position. Continuing Education Requirements (CERs) or Continuing Education Units (CEUs) will be stated in two forms – an hourly requirement and a subject requirement. Operators need to complete the educational requirements within the timeframe provided by the licensing agency. Credits can be attained by completing courses presented by a licensing agency representative, a source validated by the licensing agency or by completing online training from a website authorized by the licensing agency. It is vital the training is approved by the licensing agencies before its completion. The operator will need to provide proof of course completion to the licensing agency and retain a copy for their personnel file.
According to the EPA, “Without a sufficiently sized and trained water workforce, water utilities will not be able to meet national drinking water and water quality standards. Recreational, economic, and other benefits associated with clean water resources could be diminished. In addition, water utilities would not have sufficient staff to properly operate and maintain existing or future critical water infrastructure investments.” Properly trained staff make for a healthy utility that is well run on the day-to-day and also better able to plan for and recover from the occurrence of an emergency event as well.
Water and wastewater systems are marvels of engineering that require highly skilled operators, but they are also business-like entities that require another set of workers to succeed, typically toiling quietly in the background—administrative professionals.
Administrative professionals provide a bevy of vital services to water and wastewater utilities, including:
Managing water and wastewater service functions,
Complying with regulatory agencies,
Supporting and educating their governing body members,
Communicating with community stakeholders, and
Facilitating capital improvement projects.
Their day-to-day responsibilities include a diverse set of tasks such as developing budgets, tracking finances, generating utility bills, managing payroll, maintaining records, paying bills, developing policies and procedures, managing human resources, administering customer service, purchasing needed supplies, overseeing project schedules, submitting required reports, responding to non-compliance notices, supporting governing body meetings, performing customer outreach, and staying up-to-date on funding opportunities. The good work of utilities would grind to a halt without these dedicated employees.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, RCAP surveyed small communities across the country and found that 43% of respondents had only one full-time operator on staff, only a part-time operator on staff, or relied on contractors solely for operations. Recently, RCAP surveyed over 500 communities across the country and found that many also rely on a single person to perform all the utility’s administrative functions. This is especially true for the smallest communities.
There can be high turnover in administrative positions. RCAP’s survey revealed that more than a quarter of utility administrative professionals had been on the job less than two years.
The work of these administrative professionals directly impacts the utility’s ability to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and to ensure the financial sustainability of the system. But administrative professionals are often overlooked, overworked, underpaid, and under-trained, especially in small communities.
RCAP believes that one of the most effective ways to enhance utility capacity development is to invest in leadership and management training for water and wastewater administrative professionals who currently have few professional development opportunities tailored specifically for their needs and no opportunity to earn a credential such as a certificate specific to the water sector.
RCAP’s long-term goal is to address these two shortcomings by creating and offering the country’s first certificate program in management and leadership for water and wastewater administrative professionals. With generous funding from EPA’s new Innovative Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Program and in partnership with its regional partners, the International Association of Administrative Professionals, and Water Finance Assistance, RCAP began that process this year by creating a “job-task analysis,” which identifies and documents the specific tasks, knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a particular job or occupation effectively. This job-task analysis will serve as the basis for the next two steps in the program creation—developing a training curriculum for water and wastewater administrative professionals and creating the certificate exam itself. Administrative professionals would attend the training course and then sit for the certificate exam at its conclusion.
There are far more administrative professionals in small communities across the country doing whatever they can to keep their utilities and their communities functioning than we likely realize. RCAP’s field staff work with these dedicated employees every day. The goal of RCAP’s new program is to create more administrative professional leaders who can help their water and wastewater utilities thrive.
Location: Dickson, Tennessee
Issue: Bluebird Hills Water System was out of compliance with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
Outcome: Communities Unlimited (CU) provided onsite operational technical assistance, addressing all compliance issues.
Communities Unlimited was referred to Bluebird Hills Water System (BHWS) by TDEC. Annie Chiodo, a CU staff member, began working with BHWS in October 2017. The owner and operator, Charles Elston, had a history of submitting Monthly Operating Reports (MORs) late, failing to notify TDEC of significant problems and not following sampling procedures.
Mr. Elston said, “I struggled to meet TDEC requirements for recordkeeping and planning, and I failed to make deadlines for several reports. I was regularly late in submitting Monthly Operator Reports. Further, I missed some monitoring deadlines. I was made to pay over $6,000 in fines.”
Annie and Mr. Elston went to work on a calendar of what and when items needed to be submitted by, and both wrote and updated programs. Then in February 2018, the well collapsed. Mr. Elston notified the TDEC immediately. He and Annie went to work on getting the water back up online. BHWS was under a boil order for approximately three weeks until everything was in place. TDEC, Nashville Field Office donated several filter housings to help, and a team had developed to install the filtration and disinfection.
Thomas Killion from TDEC wrote:
“Under Ms. Chiodo’s assistance Mr. Elston has provided MORs on time since July 2018 and has received significant education on the proper operation of his water system. Thank you for your commitment to excellence in drinking water and to the people of Tennessee. It was a pleasure to work with you in regards to this water system, and we look forward to your assistance with other water systems in our area.”
Mr. Elston added, “Annie has made the difference. She is fully competent, uncompromisingly professional, and thoroughly approachable. She has stood with me through difficult times, been hugely encouraging, all while being firm in her ability to hold me accountable. Her example has made me a better water operator and a better person. Bluebird Hills SCWD has been fully compliant with TDEC Rules since Annie and Communities Unlimited came to my aid. I will forever be grateful to Annie, Communities Unlimited, and TDEC for offering such effective and beneficial assistance.”
Importance of Assessing Your System
In these times of tight budgets and extreme rain events, it makes good financial sense to stay on top of the condition of your wastewater collection system. Having a long-term maintenance and inspection plan in place will help extend the useful life of the system. If an issue is suspected, it is important to inspect as soon as possible; for many systems, spending money sooner to correct inflow and infiltration (I&I) issues will save on replacement and operating costs (e.g. wear & tear, chemicals, and electricity) down the road.
When to Inspect Your System
Inflow occurs when a sump pump or floor/tile drain discharges into the system, resulting in an increase of stormwater during rain events. Infiltration describes groundwater seeping into an aging pipe infrastructure through leak points and cracks. Both result in increased flows during and after rain events. Many utilities become aware of I&I when they experience spikes in flows at the plant after rain events, lift stations constantly running, gravity pipes surcharging, and/or manholes flooding.
Methods for Investigation
There are four primary methods for assessing the condition of your system: flow metering, smoke testing, dye testing, and video (CCTV). You may choose to use a combination of techniques. With the camera method, a small, closed-circuit camera is run down the pipes to visually inspect them.
If infiltration is identified, your utility will need a plan to address each component. Your plan may involve CCTV to complete a field investigation, and then replacing manhole covers, grouting/lining manholes, and/or lining/replacing pipe segments.
Tips for Pipeline Camera Inspections of Your System
There are normally two reasons to conduct a sewer inspection:
To identify and fix a problem that you are having (e.g. line break/crack, blockage/backflow, emergencies).
Routine maintenance, to avoid emergencies and problems down the road.
When using the pipeline camera inspections technique, it allows you to complete both simple and general projects. Simple projects can be done without any pre-configurations. This is a direct start approach, for just recording videos and taking screenshots of problematic areas in the line, in which you can overlay a free text of the problems found. General projects allow the same methods (screenshots and video recordings); however, they also allow for more detailed data, logs, and free-text overlay to be saved to generate more detailed reports.
Pictures by: Eleisha Shelton
To ensure that your inspection reports are accurate, operators should create a camera inspection checklist. A good checklist should include sectioning out your system (this will make it easier when recording and quicker to knock out), material composition used, problematic area, maintenance/cleaning, testing/inspections, pressure readings, and whatever best fits your system.
Funding Your I&I Strategy
Plan ahead to save. When considering any capital improvement project, think about adding an I&I study or repairs to the project budget.
Save money by performing line repairs when the ground is already being disturbed for other projects (road repairs, for example).
Reach out to non-profit organizations such as RCAP, whose experts can provide free technical assistance. Additionally, your state’s RCAP Technical Assistance Provider can help your utility with applying for grants and low-interest loans, such as RCAP’s Revolving Loan Fund, USDA-Rural Development Water and Environmental Programs (WEP), State Revolving Loan Funds, and Community Development Block Grants.
Funding resources: https://www.rcap.org/obtaining-infrastructure-funding-resources/
USEPA Quick Guide for Estimating I&I: https://www3.epa.gov/region1/sso/pdfs/QuickGuide4EstimatingInfiltrationInflow.pdf
USDA Rural Development WEP:https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/water-environmental-programs/water-waste-disposal-loan-grant-program
Location: Second Mesa, Arizona
Issue: Second Mesa Day School’s existing arsenic removal system was non-functional and the school’s water system had arsenic levels of 18ppb, exceeding EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL)
Outcome: RCAC staff assisted the system operator to troubleshoot the system and bring it back into compliance with arsenic levels below the MCL
Second Mesa Day School is a K-6 elementary school on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. The school has its own water system that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers as a community water system. It serves 376 people (students, staff, and teacher housing). The system uses groundwater from an aquifer that has elevated arsenic levels.
To mitigate the situation, the school installed an arsenic removal plant in 2008. The plant’s arsenic removal system has components that need to be routinely maintained, calibrated, and replaced. The system had not received the requisite maintenance for 10 years, and when RCAC arrived in March 2017, it was out of compliance with EPA’s Arsenic Rule.
RCAC worked very closely with the newly hired system operator, Melvin Pooyouma. The plant is relatively complex with several automated pieces that need to be working correctly and in harmony for effective arsenic removal. Starting at the upstream end of the system, the team began to explore and troubleshoot each component down the line.
During the next three months, RCAC and the operator were able to diagnose and fix the system’s broken components. RCAC helped the operator bring the pH to 7.0 and trained the team on the importance of keeping the pH near 7.0.
The second major improvement to the system was removal and inspection of the filter cartridges. The team repaired and reset all the cartridges.
Finally, the team replaced the calcium chloride injection pump that was no longer working and set the pumping rate to the newly calculated correct rate.
The plant now has non-detect levels of arsenic in its treated water and the system can provide safe drinking water to the students and staff.
RCAP Joins Hillary Clinton, Columbia University, For A Conversation on Rural and Tribal Infrastructure
Olga Morales-Pate, Rural Community Assistance Partnership Inc. (RCAP) CEO, joined Columbia World Projects and other experts for a discussion on water and wastewater systems in rural areas. The conversation, moderated by former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was fruitful and brought together a network of diverse perspectives and backgrounds to discuss the various challenges and constraints unique to this type of infrastructure.
“As a technical assistance provider organization of fifty years, we work with these kinds of challenges and communities day in and day out… The number of challenges that we have across the country are many. When we put the responsibility on the individual resident, if we know that the cost per household is prohibitive, we are never going to get to a sustainable solution,” Morales-Pate stated.
RCAP is made up of six regional affiliates which have strong local relationships, specialized knowledge for communities, and employees who are in the communities they serve while also having the strength of national breadth. This combination enables effective work which produces change. One thing is clear- every community looks different.
A common theme was that many considered access to wastewater sanitation and other water infrastructure systems a human right, which makes this topic vitally important to address. Education, improved data collection to understand what systems households use, innovation in methods and mindset, sustainability and longevity, and equity in services were all important factors to consider. In addition, servicing clusters of people instead of individuals in a community was thought to yield a larger impact in hard to access communities.
Bringing together expertise to share knowledge, learn, and improve is a part of RCAP’s value system. We were happy to be a part of the conversation on rural development with Columbia World Projects and stand committed to partnering with individual communities as technical assistance providers. It is vital to build trust and reliability at the local level while also keeping in mind what is happening nationwide.
As many communities prepare for the Lead and Copper Rule revisions, which focus on improving lead sampling to better protect public health, Allamuchy Township joins numerous others as they work to strengthen their understanding and implementation of the rule and its requirements. Allamuchy Township is located in Warren County, in the northwestern part of New Jersey. The township has a growing population of 5,423, which is up almost 25% from the 2010 census count. Allamuchy Township Water and Sewer operates and maintains their community ground water system, which is characterized as a Class-1 drinking water treatment (T-1), Class-2 drinking water distribution (W-2), Class-2 wastewater treatment (S-2), and Class-2 wastewater collection system (C-2).
The purpose of lead and copper regulations is to protect public health through the minimization of lead and copper levels in drinking water. Due to the nature of the occurrence of both metals, their presence in drinking water is mainly due to the corrosion of distribution lines and plumbing materials. This requires the appropriate identification, monitoring, and sampling of lead and copper throughout a system’s service area in order to protect its customers from exposure at levels unsafe for consumption.
Allamuchy recently underwent a change in licensed operator at their drinking water and sewer system. With the change in staff, RCAP Solutions has been providing assistance to make sure the system is up to date with the statute and to ensure the community continues to provide optimal operation and maintenance that furthers their goal of protecting public health.
In an effort to provide technical assistance to Allamuchy Township Water and Sewer, RCAP met with the system to discuss the their current capacity after the transfer in licensed operator responsibility. RCAP was able to identify the need for an updated and approved lead and copper sampling plan as a priority for Allamuchy Township Water and Sewer. RCAP guided the community through the original Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), so they were apprised of the history and were given a comprehensive summary. Following an overview, the associated requirements, the revisions and updates to the rule (LCRR) to ensure that the new sampling plan encompassed current requirements.
RCAP helped guide the operator through the completion of the Lead and Copper Sampling Plan, while undergoing the dissemination of a comprehensive training for Allamuchy Water and Sewer’s operator on how to comply with the lead and copper rule revisions and associated regulations. The township’s lead and copper sampling plan review was finalized, and RCAP continues to be in communication with the system’s operator to ensure awareness and knowledge retention as the Lead and Copper Rule continues to be revised.
All small water systems must create budgets and set rates for the communities they serve. For some systems, rates are set to prioritize maintaining the lowest rates possible rather than the physical and fiscal health of the system. Well-intentioned governing bodies may feel they are serving their community’s best interest in keeping rates low. However, if the rates are kept artificially low, this can do a disservice to the community. Chronically undercharging customers, without covering the true costs of maintaining and operating system infrastructure, will leave small and very small systems unable to conduct routine maintenance, manage their assets and reserve the capital necessary to invest in needed infrastructure upgrades.
Rates must recover the “true costs” of providing service, including all operational costs, and funding necessary reserve accounts and debt service, if applicable. Since water systems obtain most of their revenue from user charges, a rate structure’s fairness and adequacy are imperative to both the utility and its customers. Rates must be based on a strong, well-developed budget that includes all costs of service.
To determine the true cost of service for a system, you’ll need to account for:
Reserve account funding
Most utilities understand that operating and administrative costs must be recovered through customer rates. However, because there is an expectation the utility will provide uninterrupted service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, there is no margin for failure. Therefore, the cash reserves a utility maintains are critical to its financial sustainability. Maintaining adequate reserve levels helps to ensure that the utility will have adequate funds available to meet its financial obligations in times of varying needs. It also provides a framework around which financial decisions can be made to determine when reserve balances are inadequate or excessive and what specific actions need to be taken to remedy the situation.
Utility reserve levels can be thought of as savings accounts. Reserve balances are funds that are set aside for a specific cash flow requirement, financial need, project, task, or legal covenant. Common reserve balances are established around the following four areas: operating reserve, capital improvement, emergency, and debt service reserve. These balances are maintained to meet short-term cash flow requirements and, at the same time, minimize the risk associated with meeting financial obligations and continued operational needs under adverse conditions.
Operating reserves are established to allow the utility to withstand short-term cash flow fluctuations. There can be a significant length of time between when a system provides a service and when a customer pays for that service. In addition, weather and seasonal demand patterns can affect a system’s cash flow. A 45-day operating reserve is a frequently used industry norm. Because of potential delays in collecting payment, many utilities attempt to keep an amount of cash equal to at least 45 days or one-eighth of their annual cash operation and maintenance expenses in an operating reserve to mitigate potential cash flow problems.
Capital Improvement Reserve
A capital improvement reserve (CIP) (also called a repair and replacement reserve) is intended to be used to replace system assets that have become worn out or obsolete. Unlike the emergency reserve, the CIP reserve is intended to be used for planned replacements/upgrades. To initiate a CIP, a small water system will start with a list of assets including the remaining service life and theoretical replacement costs in today’s dollars. It then calculates the monthly and annual reserve that must be collected from each customer to fully capitalize the replacement cost of each asset. For many small and very small utilities, attempting to fully fund asset replacement would result in rates that are untenable. An amount of at least 20 percent of replacement costs can be the alternative target. Many loans and grants will fund a maximum of 80 percent of the project, leaving the utility to provide 20 percent in matching funds.
In addition to operating reserves, emergency reserves are an important tool for financial sustainability. Emergency reserves are intended to help utilities deal with short-term emergencies that arise from time-to-time, such as main breaks or pump failures. The appropriate amount of emergency reserves will vary greatly with the size of the utilities and should depend on major infrastructure assets. An emergency reserve is intended to fund the immediate replacement or reconstruction of the system’s single most critical asset—an asset whose failure will result in an immediate water outage or threat to public safety.
Debt Service Reserve
Water utilities that have issued debt to pay for capital assets will often have required reserves that are specifically defined to meet the legal covenants of the debt. Normally, the debt service reserve represents an amount equal to one full annual loan payment (principal and interest) and can be accumulated to this level over a period of five to ten years.
Establishing an adequate operating revenue stream by creating a rate structure mindfully designed to recover the true costs of service requires examining historic financial documents and policies and evaluating current and future system requirements. From this, cost of service will be disclosed. From the cost of service, an appropriate rate structure can be developed.
*If you want to learn more about rate setting, please check out RCAP’s Rates guide.
After a long winter or summer, seasonal changes can be pleasant. However, one side effect of changing temperatures is the undesirable effect produced in wastewater systems, particularly lagoon systems. During the fall and spring months, wastewater lagoons often experience turnover due to changing temperatures. During the fall, cold air decreases the temperature in the upper regions of a warm lagoon, or in the spring, warm air increases the temperature in the upper areas of a cold lagoon, it can cause mixing between the upper and lower zones, stirring up lagoon settled solids and releasing gasses that can result in unpleasant odors.
Symptoms of turnover can include the previously mentioned odors, floating sludge, and a darker color in the water of the lagoon. Usually, this is a normal and temporary process. Aside from resident objections to undesirable odors or possible elevated concentrations in the effluent, it is nothing to be concerned about. If the process lasts longer than a few weeks, additional underlying issues may exist.
If a lagoon is experiencing the symptoms of turnover for longer than a few weeks or during stable temperatures in the summer or winter, it is likely overloaded. For aerated lagoons, the first step is often to increase aeration times to introduce more oxygen into the treatment process. Another option is to switch to temporarily operating in parallel for lagoons that are performed in sequence. This can help to decrease loading on individual cells and give the overloaded cell time to recover. If the system has adequate storage capacity, operators may also want to consider recirculating effluent into the affected cell. This can help to dilute the lagoon and increase dissolved oxygen levels. In extreme cases, the affected cell may need to be bypassed or temporary aerators installed to remedy the problem.
Regular wastewater influent testing is essential. Consistent flow measurements can help operators anticipate and diagnose whether these symptoms are typical or the result of overloading. This can help operators remedy the problems before they get out of hand.
For regular seasonal turnover, lagoon facilities with repeated odor complaints from residents might consider establishing a community outreach plan. The plan should include explanations about how these types of systems work, why turnover happens, and the importance of wastewater treatment to a community, which may alleviate resident concerns and temper frustrations. Possible avenues for community engagement include local newspapers, social media or flyers. Although the plan may not prevent all residential complaints, transparency and readily available information may help residents understand what to expect regarding this vital part of their local infrastructure.
It is essential to have plans to deal with the many challenges a wastewater treatment system can throw at you. Being on the lookout for changes, knowing what is normal and what may require operational adjustments, and having a robust community engagement plan will go a long way toward dealing with challenges like lagoon turnover.