How to Determine the True Cost of a System When Conducting a Rate Study
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.
Changing Temperatures Can Set Back Wastewater Lagoons
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.
“To Pump, or Not to Pump, that is the question…”
This is an age-old question that owners of septic systems seem to ask one another. Although misguided, there seems to be some sense of pride of ownership that the longer one can go without pumping their septic tank, the better, more robust system they must have. Not so. Please tell all of your friends!
A septic tank system needs regular maintenance, just like your car needs oil changes and spark plugs replaced, just like your HVAC system needs filters replaced and periodic checks by professionals. Think of your septic system as you would any other household system that needs some care and upkeep. Household wastewater contains disease-causing bacteria and viruses, as well as high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most of these pollutants. If not, a malfunctioning septic system can be a public health and environmental hazard by allowing exposure of harmful contaminants to humans, pets and the natural world. Not to mention, it is a violation of the law.Figure from EPA
Conventional septic systems are designed to be relatively low maintenance, but low maintenance does not equate to NO maintenance. A septic tank system is essentially comprised of five basic components:
A household collection system that removes all sewage from the dwelling and transports it out into the holding tank, or septic tank.
The septic tank is where the treatment of the waste begins, and its routine maintenance is an important step in the functional lifespan of your system. From the septic tank, the liquid portion of the sewage, called effluent, exits the septic tank, and moves out to the third component.
A distribution box, as the name implies, this box equally distributes the effluent as it moves out into the fourth component,
A drain field or absorption trenches.
Lastly is the soil, in which your septic system is installed, is the final step of treatment for a conventional septic system.
The septic tank works to “sort” the household waste as it allows for the contents to settle and separate. The solids settle down to the bottom of the tank, while the fats, oils, and greases float to the top. This action ideally results in no solids moving out into the drain field where they can potentially clog up the absorption trenches. If too much water is introduced into the septic tank at one time (i.e.., multiple consecutive loads of laundry), this can disrupt the settling time and potentially result in solids moving out into your drain field. Adequate settling time is important, so it is vital to keep this in mind in your routine household activities. Over time, the solids at the bottom of the tank accumulate and need to be removed. If the tank is not pumped out every three to five years, the holding capacity, and the ability to separate the waste will be diminished, thus creating a situation in which solids can more easily move into the drain field.
Septic tanks contain naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria which help break down solids in the tank and support the biological processes that treat human waste. Some people believe that they can reduce the frequency of septic tank pump outs by introducing “additives” to their septic system. There are different types of additives on the market. Biological additives add more bacteria to the tank, and in doing so, can create conditions in which the bacterial populations compete against each other, potentially causing negative effects. Enzymes are another type of septic tank additive. The enzymes are thought to aid in the breakdown of certain types of solids and limit the buildup of the scum layer (fats, oils, greases). Additives claiming to eliminate the need for pumping usually re-suspend solids, moving them to the drain field, thus clogging lines and leading to system failure. Septic tank additives are not regulated and there is no scientific evidence to support their benefit. A healthy septic tank should not need any additives, but again, it does need routine inspection and pumping every three to five years.
Some general rules of the road when it comes to caring for your septic system:
Use less water. Space out laundry sessions throughout the week. This avoids overloading the system over a short period of time. Be sure to notice any leaking toilets or dripping faucets and repair them right away.
Keep toxic chemicals from going down the drain. Properly dispose of solvents, paint, varnish, oil, and pesticides, instead of putting them down the drain. Use bleach and household cleaners sparingly.
Keep solids out. Cigarettes, left over medications, handwipes, feminine hygiene products, paper towels, tissues, kitty litter, and other solid items should go into the trash, not your septic system. Left over medications could kill the “good” bacteria in your tank.
Keep grease and fat out of your kitchen drain. Pour the oil into a container and dispose of it in the trash.
Limit use of garbage disposal. Using a garbage disposal increases the amount of water and solids in your septic tank, requiring more frequent pumping.
Divert runoff and drainage water. Never drain swimming pools or hot tubs into your septic system or drain field. Downspouts and roof runoff should be directed away from your drain field to limit hydraulically overloading the soil.
Regular maintenance pump fees can average between $250 to $500. This expense every three to five years is a bargain compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a failing septic system. Replacement costs can range from $5,000 to $20,000 or more depending on the type of system needed. A well designed, healthy septic system that is properly cared for should last a homeowner 20-30 years or more. Your septic system is a silent partner in keeping your home life humming. As lovable as your car, which you maintain regularly and as just as aggravating when it breaks down?! To find more information about being Septic Smart, go to: https://www.epa.gov/septic/septicsmart-week-quick-tip-videos.
A Look Inside RCAP’s Fly-In: Meeting With the Team Behind the Fly-In
From February 27 to March 2, 2023, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) will host our annual Fly-In in Washington D.C. To get an inside perspective on the Fly-In, I sat down with RCAP’s Policy & Advocacy team, which includes some of the folks on the Fly-In planning team. These individuals include Hunter Jackman, Maranda Saling, and Ted Stiger. This will be both Hunter and Maranda’s first in-person Fly-In.
In your own words, what is the RCAP Fly-In?
Maranda: I’m still trying to get ahold of what the Fly-In is, but I believe this is our opportunity for our regions to come together with our National Office staff in D.C. and get an insider view of the advocacy work that we do. Additionally, regional staff gets to spend time with staff on the Hill to build relationships and they can go back home to continue their work.
Hunter: That’s a good summary but I have a few additions. When regional staff members are building relationships with their Members of Congress (MoC) and their offices, they are also talking about the work they’ve done over the past year or so. It’s a chance to showcase their work and bring their work to serve a higher purpose in the sense that the work speaks directly to some of our (RCAP’s) policy priorities. It’s really powerful for MoC to hear the impact and work that’s directly impacting these communities, showing that these programs and funds are being put to good use.
As a follow-up, for those who are not attending the Fly-In. How can they interact with Congress outside of this event?
M: Due to COVID-19, folks can interact with MoC through virtual meetings. Additionally, folks can visit their state offices and build relationships with those who work in those offices. Additionally, regions will get external materials I believe they can use outside of the Fly-In?
H: Correct! Those external materials can be used all year (such as the RCAP one-pager and our policy priorities) and remain valuable. Any skills regional staff members learn during the Fly-In preparatory webinar or experiences they had while reaching out to their MoC to schedule a meeting can easily transfer over to their interactions with their home offices. I think the value goes beyond just this Fly-In.
Ted: I want to jump in and say the National Office advocacy team provides a ton of resources and training to regional staff. We provide services to regions to be able to support their communities and really advocate not only for their organizations but for the communities as well.
Okay, now this is going to be our first in-person Fly-In since 2020. Hunter, I know you have attended Fly-Ins in the past, albeit virtual, and Maranda, this will be your first Fly-In ever. How do you two feel about the preparation that went into the in-person Fly-In? Any differences between the preparation for the virtual? Excited?
M: I’ll start. I’m very excited to be in person since this is my first actual Fly-In. Our prep work has been thorough and very fun, utilizing the relationships we’ve already built.
H: I’m also very excited for it to be hosted in person this year. A lot of the prep work is the same from my end. The logistics of hosting the event are a bit more complicated in-person than in Zoom. In terms of relationship building, having these briefings in person humanizes this work a bit more. It feels more powerful than hosting it over Zoom because there are human beings you tune in and listen to. We’ll see benefits from hosting our briefings and plenaries in person.
T: This is my 13th year in a row doing Fly-Ins and advocacy days, so I think over the years I’ve picked up some tips of the trade and that we’re really offering cutting-edge Fly-In advocacy for the network. I prefer in-person over virtual any day, but at least Capitol Hill has changed the culture where we can have meetings and not have to go to Washington D.C. Being in person is great for relationship building, but flying to Washington D.C. was always an access issue. Having a virtual option helps widen our impact, but we have to be cognizant of those who live in rural and don’t have the bandwidth strength to reach out to their MoC. We’re excited about both in-person and virtual options and want to make sure everyone is prepared for both options.
Lastly, are there any big things coming up for the Fly-In this year that people should be on the lookout for?
T: We have Radikha Fox who runs the EPA office of water. We have a lineup of speakers who are key decision-makers in Washington. We have Mitch Landrieu, who Biden appointed to oversee the entire Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which is almost $1t in investments. We also have Senator Boozman coming to accept his congressional award and we are giving an award to Senator Brown as well. We support MoCs who are interested in getting things done and are problem-solvers.
H: Something I’m particularly excited about this Fly-In is that this is the first time we’ll be having Community Economic Development (CED) programming at a Fly-In. Right, Ted?
T: Yes, this will be the first congressional briefing that we’ve done on community economic development policy at a Fly-In.
H: One point of clarification is this will be the first time we’ve had a CED briefing at a Fly-In, but we had a briefing back in June of 2022, that was separate from the Fly-In. These briefings occur to further RCAP’s CED policy work in Washington D.C. and beyond. We want to continue furthering our advocacy efforts around community and economic development issues when possible.
Anything else? Maranda?
M: I’m pretty excited about presenting the Congressional Awards and meeting one of the Senators!
Yeah, those are pretty fun. That covers all the questions for today. I appreciate you all taking the time to chat with me about this year’s Fly-In.
Learn more about the Fly-In here and follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #RCAPOnTheHill2023
Flushable Wipes Causing Pump Clogs? Pump Flow Tests Can Alert Operators Faster
In the world of wastewater collections, there are few things more cringe-inducing than the phrase “flushable wipes.”
Marketed as a convenient and efficient solution to sensitive tushes and germ-ridden surfaces alike, these fibrous and hard-wearing nonwoven wipes are the bane of rural and urban wastewater treatment facilities. In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have increasingly relied on these faux-flushables to keep their homes, schools, and workplaces clean. This has added to the headaches of system operators around the globe.
Once customers send these deceptively labeled disposables down the tubes, they cause havoc for public utilities’ vital equipment by enmeshing in plant screens and filters, weaving around impellers or combining with fat, oil, and grease (F.O.G.) to cause pump station clogs and other potentially catastrophic damage. As a result, budgets and labor hours are squandered, reducing systems’ operational efficiency and overall capacity.
In response, utilities have developed countless amusing and creative public information campaigns encouraging customers to think twice before flushing wipes. However, public media campaigns have their inherent limitations, and operators are ultimately responsible for taking the necessary precautions to prevent small obstructions from becoming crusty quagmires or all-out catastrophic events.
With these risks in mind, let’s revisit the fundamentals of routine pump maintenance. By extending the life of your pumps and improving their efficiency, you can prevent a nightmare scenario from occurring and potentially incapacitating your entire operation.
Wastewater lift station drop of knowledge pump flow test procedure
Calculate pump flow rates using volume and time calculations for wastewater lift stations without flow meters. First, inflow is measured with pumps off over a given time. Then one pump is started and how long it takes to pump the level down one foot is timed. Both the calculated inflow and pump down rate are combined for a total flow rate. Complete the test with the level close to the pump stop setpoint for worst case numbers. Periodic tests need to be completed at the same levels for comparable results.
Pump wet well down close to stop setpoint
With all pumps off, time how long it takes for the level to rise one foot
Start one pump and time how long it takes to pump down one foot
Repeat the procedure for all pumps
Calculate the wet well volume using the following methods:
0.785 x diameter2x depth x 7.48 (gallons per cubic foot)
Square or rectangle:
Length x width x depth x 7.48 (gallons per cubic foot)
Use these volumes per foot with inflow/pumping times to calculate pumping rate
0.785 x 6 x 6 x 1 x 7.48 = 211.4 gallons per foot
Inflow level rise 1 foot took 6 minutes
211.4 gallons ÷ 6 minutes = 35.2 GPM inflow rate
Pump down 1 foot took 1:15 minutes
211.4 gallons ÷ 1.25 (15 seconds is 25% of a minute) minutes = 169.1 GPM + 35.2 GPM inflow = 204.3 GPM total flow rate
Perform this test at regular intervals to monitor pumping performance more effectively.
Small South Dakota City Leverages Funds to Complete Expensive Sewer System Upgrade
The City of Faith is a small town located in Meade County, in central South Dakota, and is a hub for cattle ranching, general livestock, farming, and providing accommodations for visiting travelers. With a population of 421, the city has approximately 192 sewer/water service connections to residents and businesses. The famous dinosaur T-Rex called “Sue” was found in an area not far from Faith.
The City of Faith needed to refurbish its entire wastewater collection system to address significant inflow and infiltration problems within the system. The city also needed a remedy for the persistent clogging of pipes from tree roots, the corroding condition of system manholes, and the improper connection of sewer service lines. The original wastewater collection system was installed in the 1920s using vitrified clay piping. In recent years, a few short segments have been replaced with newer pipe; however, the vast majority of the system (over 80%) is original material and is showing signs of significant deterioration. A Preliminary Engineering Report recommended the best option to remediate the city’s sewer collection issues was to “slip-line” the existing sewer collection piping and replace the corroding system manholes. Sliplining is a technique for repairing leaks or restoring structural stability to an existing pipeline. It involves installing a smaller, “carrier pipe” into a larger “host pipe”, grouting the annular space between the two pipes, and sealing the ends.
The city did an excellent job of long-term planning for the project. Over the last several years they were able to save $500,000 to contribute to the almost $2,000,000 project. MAP worked closely with the city and the local planning district, Black Hills Council of Local Governments, to access additional public financing for the project. With this assistance, the city was able to obtain a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for $515,000, a USDA Rural Development (RD) grant for $116,836, and a low-interest loan from USDA RD for $829,000. Coupled with the city’s $500,000 contribution to the project, the completed financing package made the project feasible and affordable for the community.
MAP provided technical assistance to the city in the bidding phase and during project construction, with the goal of ensuring the project moved along smoothly. Due to the multiple funding sources, it took coordination among organizations to ensure the funds were spent in the correct order.
When MAP asked Debbie Brown, Finance Officer for the City of Faith, about the project’s financial impact to the residents and businesses, she stated, “due to long-term planning and being able to leverage funds, the overall impact to the local residents and businesses was minimal and rates remain affordable for the city’s customers.”
The community’s long-term outcome of this project is they can provide dependable wastewater services to the residents and businesses in the City of Faith. The repairs to Faith’s wastewater system ensure the ongoing safety and health of the individuals living in the community.
Cross Connection Control – A Holistic Approach
A cross connection can be defined as any actual or potential connection between the public water supply and a source of contamination or pollution. Cross connections with potable piping systems have resulted in numerous cases of illness and even death. Historically, cross connections have been one of the most serious public health threats to a drinking water supply system and many times are present in a residential water system. In order for public water systems to deal with cross connections effectively, not only must laws regarding cross connections be enforced, but customers of those systems must be educated on potential cross connections and how to neutralize those hazards.
Kentucky water utilities are required by state law to determine if or where cross connections exist and to immediately eliminate them. Kentucky RCAP has assisted rural cities with drafting cross connection control prevention program ordinances to protect the health of their water customers. An effective cross connection control prevention program ordinance should include the following:
Purpose and Authority – Clearly state the purpose of the ordinance and the authority to enforce it.
Definitions – Clearly define terms in the ordinance like cross connection, auxiliary water supply, backflow, backflow prevention assembly, contamination, residential, non-residential, etc.
Requirements – Clearly communicate the requirements that the system will implement to protect the public water system against backflow for both residential and non-residential customers.
Inspections – The customer’s water system shall be open to inspection at all reasonable times to authorized representatives to determine whether cross connections or other structural or sanitary hazards exist.
Penalties – Water services to any premises shall be discontinued if it is discovered that a backflow prevention assembly required by this ordinance has been removed, bypassed, or if an unprotected cross connection exists on the premises. Service will not be restored until such conditions or defects are corrected.
As stated earlier, enforcing cross connection laws/ordinances is just part of the equation. Water customer education is paramount for a cross connection control program to be successful. What are some examples of educational materials that can be utilized to inform water customers regarding cross connections in the home? RCAP provides system specific cross connection brochures for water systems to distribute to their customers. An effective cross connection brochure should include the following.
Definition of Terms – Customers need to know what a cross connection is, the concept of backflow, the two types of backflow (backpressure and back siphonage), and corresponding definitions.
What is Considered a Potential Hazard? – Any connection between a customer’s drinking water and another source of water that combines the two when a backflow condition occurs is a potential hazard and can cause contamination. The common household garden hose is a prime example. Customers can unknowingly create a cross connection by:
Putting an attached hose into a full bathtub;
Putting the garden hose in a swimming pool to fill it;
Putting the garden hose down the drain to flush out debris when it is backed up; or
Connecting your garden hose to a plant fertilizer or bug spray unit.
What are the Dangers of Cross Connections? – Backflows due to cross connections can cause sickness and death. If a drop in water pressure occurs, the hose could act as a siphon and backflow contaminants back up into the water supply. This makes the water unsafe for the customer, their family, and their neighbors. In fact, over half of the nation’s cross connections involve unprotected garden hoses.
Tips for Customers to Protect Their Drinking Water
Check all plumbing connections to discover water uses that may pose a hazard to the public water supply.
Never place the end of a hose where it can backflow contaminants into your drinking water.
Leave at least a one-inch air gap between the end of a tap and a source of contamination.
Attach a hose connection vacuum breaker to threaded taps to prevent contaminated water from being siphoned through a hose. Vacuum breakers are relatively inexpensive and can be found at hardware and plumbing supply stores.
In addition to brochures, Kentucky RCAP has created and provided a static “hands-on” cross connection public education display to water systems. The static display contains potential cross connection home hazards (i.e. spigots/hoses, toilet components, cattle feeders, etc.) and the devices that can be used to neutralize those hazards. The static display can be utilized in a public place or in a classroom setting.
With all the challenges that we are facing with the ongoing pandemic, it is quite evident that we are all in this together. Water systems, water customers, and RCAP must continue to work collaboratively to eliminate cross connections to protect public health.
Are Your Utilities Prepared for the Upcoming Winter?
There are four seasons winter, spring, summer, and fall. Some places may not experience them all, but we need to prepare for it all, as the last few years have taught us. For those lucky enough to see the leaves change from green to bright orange and deep reds, then drop to the ground to racked into piles for fun or so the grass doesn’t die. It is the sign that fall has come and winter will soon arrive.
Is your water or wastewater system prepared for winter storms, freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and the dangerous ice they can bring?
According to Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms (2015)1, cold weather can impact operations and cause problems. The effects of the cold weather may have a costly and lasting impact on utilities that may include, but are not limited to:
Broken pipes throughout the distribution system
Loss of power and communication lines
Limited access to facilities due to icy roads or debris
Reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions
Source water quality impacts due to increased amount of road salt in stormwater runoff
Potential flooding risk due to snowpack melt and ice jams
Potential surface water supply challenges as ice and frozen slush can black valves and restrict intakes
Now is the time that utilities should think about the resilience of their systems. EPA’s Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms, lists ways utilities can prepare for, respond to and recover from the cold and winter storms.
Planning for extreme cold and winter storms can be as easy as monitoring for inclement weather. Being prepared for inclement weather can give utilities the time to gather extra equipment and supplies such as motors, chemicals, batteries, generators and fuel. It also gives them time to review and update the Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Double-check that the contact numbers are current for emergency response partners, such as the local Emergency Management Agency (EMA), Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), and other mutual aid agencies. Taking the time to prepare also ensures that utilities can schedule and assign duties to personnel as needed. Another helpful hint is to make sure that emergency funds are set aside, in advance, just in case they are needed later. Do not wait until an emergency happens and there are not enough funds to take care of the issue.
Responding to extreme cold and winter storms begins by conducting a damage assessment of the utility and service area as soon as possible. The system should inspect the facility components for damage, such as leaks and line breaks. The service area should be checked for downed power lines and power outages. Contact your local EMA and state regulatory/primacy agency as soon as possible if your water quality or quantity is affected. Customers should also be notified immediately of any boil water notices or service disruptions.
Recovering from extreme cold and winter storms includes completing any repairs to return the utility to normal service, if necessary. Damage assessments should be reviewed to identify the effectiveness of storm preparation. Make a checklist of the following questions and jot down the answers to help with the process.
What worked and what didn’t work?
What needs to be improved?
Were there enough funds set aside?
Do you need to apply for state and/or federal funding?
Review the ERP and identify measures that can prevent damage in the future
These are just a few ways that a utility can prepare for, respond to and recover from extreme cold and winter storms. EPA’s Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms goes into detail. It provides links to other good articles to have handy at this time of the year.
Take time to visit EPA’s website at https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-10/incident-action-checklist-extremecold_508c-final.pdf to find out if your utility is ready for the winter.
1 Environmental Protection Agency. (2015, January). Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms. EPA. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/.
Photograph Credit: © Evgen / Adobe Stock
Water Utility Digital Transformation
Our Nation’s aging utility infrastructure is gaining notable attention. Multiple factors such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an aging workforce, and natural disasters occurring more often, the need for utilities to transition to digital workflows is evident and the time to act is now. Many rural utilities are still reliant on paper utility maps and field operation workflows.
These paper-based workflows often result in inefficiencies such as lack of access to paper maps, weathered/aged paper, redundant data entry processes, illegible handwriting, and an inability to meet regulatory requirements with accurate data entry. Additionally, the aging workforce has been accustomed to performing their role relying solely on paper workflows and can be resistant to digital workflows.
This reliance on paper maps and workflows makes it more difficult to overcome industry challenges and is costlier to operate, thus the need for digital transformation. The benefits of digital transformation are well-known—such as reducing operations costs and providing a better system of records. This results in smarter asset management decisions, attaining better regulatory compliance, and having more satisfied customers.
Geographical Information Services (GIS) Bridges the Transition from Paper to Digital Mapping
GIS in its simplest form, is a tool that incorporates geographical features with tabular data in order to map, analyze, and collaborate. The pivotal piece of this technology is geography – meaning that the data is spatial. “Spatial” is defined as occupying a physical space on earth. Spatial data is usually accompanied by tabular data, known as attribute data. “Attribute data” is defined as additional information about a spatial feature. An example of this would be a water valve. The actual location of the water valve is the spatial data. Additional data such as valve manufacturer, type of valve, the date the valve was installed, and the number of turns to open would make up the attribute data. It is the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective tool through spatial analysis. To obtain the spatial location of the water valve, GPS (Global Positioning System) technology is used in conjunction with GIS software.
The benefits of utilities utilizing GIS are numerous:
Knowing where infrastructure components are located
Baseline for Asset Management
Creating a singley, leads to improved records management
Increased operational efficiency among workforce; data access available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a secure cloud-based solution
Improved proactive operations through efficient digital field operations and work order management procedures
Decreased reactive operations
Emergency preparedness and response
Meet regulatory compliance reporting
Transparency to the community and leaders
Theft reduction by more optimized water loss capability
The process can seem overwhelming for a rural community. Data collection is just the first step. There are stages in which digital transformation can be modeled once a utility decides to make the transition.
Smart Water Network Forum (SWAN), a global non-profit organization focused on advancing digital transformation in the water and wastewater industry provides the following Benefits of Digital Transformation for Water Utilities. (Source: https://www.swan-forum.com/blog/#Idrica-Digital-Transformation)
1- Data is translated into actionable information
The evolution of water meters, in relation to their data collection capabilities and communication systems, has led to unprecedented streams of information, which utility managers can use to make critical decisions proactively. However, today utilities only thoroughly analyze, on average, about 10 percent of the data they collect (2015 CIO Forum).
When conveniently used, Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI) can help utilities take their digital transformation to the next level. Data collection is just the first step. For it to be useful, large data streams must be translated into actionable information via powerful analytical engines, allowing end-users to rapidly understand and act. This means that utilities should move from a data-siloed organization to a data-centric one, having full transparency and interoperability. According to Jaime Barba, CEO Idrica and global smart water expert, “data means nothing if it can’t be turned into information”.
2- Managers can make better decisions for a resilient future
As consumer behaviors change and climate change accelerates, there is a growing need for long-term planning to drive business decisions, but also for making accurate short-term decisions. Water utilities must build resilience by identifying potential impacts and developing adaptation plans. To build a sustainable water future it is necessary not only to have the adequate infrastructure but also to control in advance what is going to happen and why.
3- Utilities can move towards a customer-centric approach
Thanks to technological innovations related to water meters, utilities can now become proactive in customer management. The internet has enabled the transformation of many companies, provides enhanced detail of client information which, used properly, provides added value services to customers, reduces complaints, and can support industrial customers to optimize the use of water intake in their processes.
The benefits of digital transformation involve higher transparency with citizens, companies, and institutions, who will become key agents for a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, and for which their direct involvement is required.
4- Benefits of digital transformation: ROI is increased
The digitalization of water resource management means savings at both the operational and investment levels. By automating previously manual processes, a smart water approach in organizations generates greater efficiencies at a lower cost. Any water utility, regardless of its phase in its digital transformation journey, can see increases in return on investment (ROI) from past investments and make the most of existing technology structures by implementing technological solutions to build a digital structure. The savings achieved can also be the basis for further investments in digitalization, thus making this process sustainable.
RCAP has a network of talent able to assist many communities to take the steps towards digital transformation. Making an investment in rural America’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure provides an opportunity for communities to maintain sustainability and provide safe drinking water. Through GIS, sustainability becomes easier to achieve.
As a side note, we have just released our new GIS Guidebook, “The Role Mapping Serves for Your Small, Rural, or Tribal Utility”.