By Traci McQuary, Mississippi State Coordinator, Communities Unlimited (CU)
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 18 million households, or 25% of all households in the United States, dispose of their wastewater using onsite and decentralized wastewater systems, more commonly referred to as septic systems. The performance and maintenance of these systems are a significant concern for homeowners and the environment.
Although state and federal laws set minimum environmental and health standards, local officials and individual homeowners are responsible for protecting themselves and their communities from wastewater-related illnesses, like E. coli, Salmonella, and Cholera. Septic system owners are ultimately responsible for the operation, monitoring, and maintenance of their onsite septic system.
Septic systems that are not properly maintained will fail, leading to significant environmental and health concerns. Failing septic systems allow untreated sewage to pool on or under the ground. This poses a health risk to children, the elderly, the environment and provides an ideal breeding ground for flies, mosquitoes, and other disease-carrying insects. It can contaminate nearby water sources and wells. Outbreaks of waterborne illnesses are frequently traced back to contaminated groundwater.
In many states, local health departments issue permits to install septic systems according to state laws that govern public health protection. Under most regulatory programs, the local permitting agency conducts an initial individual site assessment to determine whether sufficient space is available and checking that the soil type can provide adequate treatment. These programs also establish guidelines to ensure that groundwater resources will not be threatened, and specify the appropriate distances from groundwater wells, buildings, driveways, property lines, and surface waters such as ponds or lakes. however, very few permitting agencies conduct inspections after the new septic system is installed, nor do they implement management programs to monitor the continued upkeep and functionality of septic systems while the system is in use.
Unfortunately, the current regulatory structure throughout much of the nation lacks the enforcement of acceptable performance of septic systems, so homeowners need to conduct regular maintenance on their septic systems. The most cost effective and long-term option for meeting public health and water quality goals in rural America is for homeowners to have a regularly scheduled inspection to certify that their septic system is being adequately maintained. Repairs are often left undone because homeowners cannot afford them, or repairs are done by the homeowner who is often not an expert in onsite systems.
To ensure that homeowners have correct and up to date information to maintain, operate and keep their septic system performing to satisfactory standards, the following are some examples that individual states, tribes and local governments could do:
Improve homeowners’ understanding of the role decentralized systems play in protecting local water quality and public health;
Support homeowners in suburban or rural communities in meeting their infrastructure and development needs by providing outreach and education materials on decentralized technology. The EPA offers materials and resources on their website called SepticSmart. They provide homeowner education on septic systems and promote awareness in caring for them. https://www.epa.gov/septic/septicsmart-homeowners;
Improve local decision-making through improved public awareness, education programs, and information material. RCAP can provide classes specific to each state or territory for homeowners like Decentralized Wastewater (Septic Systems) Basics for Homeowners.
If you or your community have questions or concerns on your onsite/decentralized systems, please contact your local RCAP office as we have resources for both TA and training to help protect public and environmental health for you, your family and your community. Many areas across the country have server challenges with septic systems and wastewater disposal. RCAP will be helping provide training and technical assistance as part of EPA and USDA “Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap” Community Initiative.
Before joining the RCAP National Office staff in May, Ami Keiffer worked as a rural development specialist at RCAC, providing economic and community development technical assistance to rural and tribal communities through stakeholder facilitation and capacity development. As a former TAP, we wanted to get her perspective on the value of RCAP’s national conference as it returns as an in-person event for the first time since 2019.
RCAP: For those unfamiliar with the National Conference, tell me a little about it?
Ami: The conference is like a big reunion with people who share the same interests and passions as you! I haven’t had the chance to attend in person yet, but I’m looking forward to connecting with people in person this year. For anyone who is new to the conference, I would encourage them to attend sessions on topics that are unfamiliar so they can understand the depth of services we offer in the field.
RCAP: As a TAP, what is the conference like?
Ami: I found the conference to be very informative. As a managerial and financial TAP, I liked hearing stories about technical services that were underway in the field and how TAPs are working with communities to bring about change.
RCAP: What are you most looking forward this year as a member of the National Office?
Ami: Selfishly, I’m looking forward with connecting with folks from RCAC. But I’m also excited to meet the people I have been emailing and having virtual meetings with about Treatment Works.
RCAP: The conference will be held in person this year – what are you most looking forward to in that aspect?
Ami: Being new to RCAP, I’m looking forward to meeting people face to face – I think that will be invaluable! And of course, reconnecting with the RCAC folks.
RCAP: What advice would you give to someone attending for the first time?
Ami: First time attendees should branch out and attend a variety of sessions, not just ones that deal with your day-to-day work. Take advantage of being away from the office to take in everything going on in the network and build relationships with peers you may not know.
RCAP: What topics are you looking forward to this year?
Ami: For me, it’s conflict resolution. This facilitation skill will be critical to assisting small utilities across the country as they navigate drought, rate increases, and regionalization issues.
In August 2021, RCAP Solutions received a referral from Maine Center for Disease Control for assistance regarding a confirmed cluster of illness in the rural western Maine town of Temple. Eight people had been hospitalized with intestinal illness associated with drinking water from a private spring, to include Jo, an 80-year old woman whose home has been directly supplied by the spring for over 40 years. At least a dozen other families rely on water from the spring collected at a roadside tap.
Upon meeting with Jo, RCAP learned that a sample collected at her house tested positive for total coliform bacteria, and specifically for E. coli. Jo had been stricken on her 80th birthday and endured eight days of illness. Her stool tested presumptive positive for Campylobacter bacteria.
Jo and her partner had built their home and sanctuary on a quiet dirt road in Temple over 40 years ago. It had always been gravity-fed water by a supply line from the spring on a neighboring property, to which they had deeded access. Jo loved the sweet, clear water, despite the occasional salamander that plopped out of her tap. To her knowledge, the water had never been tested prior to this incident. Now, a single woman, on a fixed income, Jo was concerned about the safety of her home’s water supply – as well as for the safety of other people of the community she knew relied on the spring. She knew there were additional unreported illnesses among the users who were reluctant to come forward, fearing they would lose access to the spring’s roadside tap.
Temple’s Town Clerk joined RCAP and Jo on an inspection of the spring, located up a wooded trail across the road from Jo’s home. The concrete casing spring box set low in a depression, on a sloped grade. Around the spring box, the depression collected rain run-off and other organic debris. The spring box lid was not secure, which allowed contaminated water inflow and the casing did not appear to go deep enough into the ground to prevent surface water seepage infiltration. Looking inside the spring box, one could see the two lines that gravity feed Jo’s home and the roadside tap. Debris floated on the surface of the water, and roots and vegetation had grown in under the cover and penetrated the casing. There was no protection of the water from natural sources of bacteria or harmful organisms. The water was not safe to drink.
THE APPROACH & SOLUTION
RCAP worked with the Maine Drinking Water Program to obtain appropriate signage and the Town Clerk posted the roadside tap, indicating the water was non-potable and should be boiled for at least 5 minutes before consuming. Efforts were underway to locate the elderly out-of-town owner of the property to encourage the removal of the roadside tap.
At Jo’s home, it was strictly bottled water for drinking, and boiling water for other uses, such as dish washing. Jo decided she needed a reliably safe source of drinking water for her home. RCAP discussed with Jo options that included installing filtration and disinfection treatment of the spring water or obtaining a new drinking water source. Jo decided to have a well drilled on her own property. RCAP provided assistance in collecting and evaluating proposals to drill the well and exploring funding opportunities available to Jo to complete its installation and directly supply her house. At the height of summer, following two years of drought and Covid-related shortages, well drillers were in high demand and under significant backlog.
The well was finally drilled November 10, 2021. After the initial flushing and disinfecting by the well driller, RCAP conducted an on-site assessment of the well and collected water quality samples from Jo’s kitchen. The results showed elevated coliform bacteria. The water system would need to be disinfected again, with particular attention to the internal plumbing, which likely had some stubborn contamination after over 40 years of using the spring. After the second disinfection, conducted by a local plumber, the bacteria count was down from 276 colonies to 28 colonies, but the system was still not clean. RCAP noted that the pH of the water was slightly high and was likely interfering with the disinfecting chemical, and recommended an additional disinfection using a pH-buffered product.
It took a village, but on December 20th, RCAP supervised a successful buffered disinfection of the well and plumbing. This effort was made possible due to generous contributions of time and material by a local plumbing firm, a supply company, and a water treatment contractor. After a final confirmation test indicated the water source and system was free of bacteria, Jo was finally able to drink from her kitchen faucet with confidence.
RCAP issued a comprehensive assessment report to Jo, complete with recommended monitoring of the water quality and an initiated well head protection plan.
After over 40 years of drinking from a spring with unreliable water quality, and at least once being severely ill due to it, this 80-year old resident of rural Temple, Maine continues to live independently in her wooded retreat, able to drink from her kitchen tap confident that her water is safe.
At this time, the roadside tap remains “posted”. The owner has not elected to shut it down. RCAP continues to work with Temple town officials, encouraging them to stay diligent in educating and warning residents of the risks of using water from unreliable sources, and suggesting that they consider providing an alternate safe drinking water supply for public use.
RCAP continues to support rural communities and private well owners with training on using and maintaining private water sources, on-site private well and spring assessments and source water testing.
Planning for Success and Security – Providing Assistance Without a Back-Up Plan Puts Everyone at Risk
A town manager in Maine had suddenly found himself in charge of his small community water system. The small town’s water operator had suddenly taken ill and was hospitalized. The back-up operator had passed away six months ago. Unfortunately, this avoidable story is not uncommon.
The community was quite remote, and the town manager was in desperate need of an operator who could help keep their two treatment plants operational. The system has several treatment phases including pre-chlorination, filtration, aeration, and fluoridation that need to be monitored and maintained. Several days and several frantic calls later, they were connected to a licensed contract operator who was willing to drive the two hours to investigate the situation.
Upon arrival, the contract operator was greeted by a public works employee who was set to be cross-trained in the water department but had no working knowledge of the treatment plants. The public works employee confessed that the regular operator, now hospitalized, had told him that the information was “all up here” as he pointed to his brain. It seemed the hospitalized operator had felt his job was threatened and closely guarded the operational information. That fear, which is often shared by undervalued operators, is unfortunate, as it created a stressful situation for everyone left in his wake.
By the end of day one, the contract operator and the public works employee were able to determine where the maintenance logs and the test kits were located. The contract operator was successfully able to show the public works employee how to run the daily tests and record the meter readings. Then the contract operator began searching for the operation and maintenance (O&M) manual or any standard operating procedures (SOPs), to figure out how the system worked, but to no avail. There were no clear procedures found to follow to ensure the system was running properly. Under stacks of unfiled paperwork, the contract operator was able to find an emergency response plan that hadn’t been updated in 18 years, which is recommended to be updated annually, but it had very little detail and was of little help. With the assistance of contract operator’s administrative office, they were able to piece together clues as to how the facilities operated through state records and other pieces of information.
By day two, alarms began to sound, though no one really knew that alarms were sounding, as the hospitalized operator was the only one getting the notifications. It was upon arrival to the plant that the public works employee observed the chlorine feed tank had run dry. The proper ratio to prepare the chlorine solution was unknown. The fluoride pump appeared to be unplugged. The public works employee was untrained in how to properly handle these dangerous chemicals. The contract operator stepped in again to help batch the chemicals and get the chemical feeds pumping. The contract operator’s best recourse and advice was to encourage the town manager and the public works employee to reach out to their regular operator, while in the hospital, to get guidance. This was not an ideal situation for anyone.
This emergency could have been avoided and continuity in service could have easily been maintained by having an O&M manual readily available. The O&M manual serves not only as a tool for the operation and maintenance of the facilities for the personnel of the plant; but it also serves as a road map for those who must step in when the primary operations crew is unavailable. For the manual to be effective, vital information must be easy to find, quickly and efficiently. The O&M manual is designed to provide treatment system personnel and the back-up operator the proper understanding of techniques and reference protocols necessary to efficiently operate their facilities. Having an O&M manual which includes well written SOPs and an emergency response plan will ensure that operations will be continued in a situation when new or temporary staff must be trained quickly.
Moving forward, the contract operator has been retained as the town’s back-up operator. His crew has already begun planning to assist with the development of a functional O&M manual to avoid this situation in the future. The grateful town manager is now keenly aware of the need to document everything and to have a back-up plan in place.
When developing an O&M manual, you should ask yourself:
What do I do on a daily and weekly basis to maintain my water and/or wastewater treatment system?
Do these activities or pieces of equipment that need maintenance involve SOPs, manufacturer’s specifications, or record keeping logs?
Do I have the right tools?
What documents or logs do I need to develop?
“Thank you so much for the help you guys have provided. You have been wonderful to work with. We will certainly be in touch.” – Town Manager of a Little Town, Maine, USA
Is your community effectively operating profitable and sustainable water and sewer systems, or are you simply getting by? With our communities’ ever-changing dynamics, our rural drinking water and wastewater systems will need to implement new administrative strategies and management tools to adapt to the increased regulatory requirements and environmental complexities they face daily and into the future. As responsible community leaders, we must allow the systems to operate using a “business model” for long-term sustainability. Sustainability will help address new and stricter regulatory requirements, changing populations, increased service demands, limited water supplies, a highly variable climate, aging infrastructure, and limited state and federal funding.
Cost estimates for water and wastewater system needs in the rural U.S. total billions of dollars nationwide. The existing state and federal funding sources can only meet a fraction of this need, even with the new influx of infrastructure dollars through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Therefore, approaches to reducing the gap between what is needed and what funds are available will need to be adopted. In addition, funders want assurance their investments in water and wastewater infrastructure will be adequately managed and maintained to ensure long-term sustainability and security. This assurance will require water and wastewater systems to present convincing evidence that they possess adequate financial, technical, and managerial capacity to maintain/sustain the infrastructure necessary to provide the service their customers expect. State and Federal funds only cover the cost of capital outlays, but not ongoing operation and maintenance over time. In addition, the new or upgraded system must remain in full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) or the Clean Water Act (CWA), and any additional state or local regulations.
It is recommended that systems adopt a “business model” for managing the delivery of services. This plan should include:
A five-year financial plan with a fully allocated rate structure;
An asset management plan;
A water accounting system with full metering;
Full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) or the Clean Water Act (CWA), and your state primacy/regulatory agency requirements ;
A governance structure adequate for proper management and oversight; and
Participation in regional efforts to collaborate on long-term solutions.
A financial plan has two components: a forecast of the utility’s future financial needs (such as operating and capital needs) and an identification of how to fund those future financial needs.
A Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) is a written document that specifies and satisfies the following questions and is typically based on a utility’s asset management program:
What facility improvements will be needed in the future?
When will the improvements be needed, and when will they be undertaken?
How much will the improvements cost?
What financing options are available for the improvements?
A CIP is a multi-year planning document that identifies capital improvement needs and is usually done in 5-, 10- and even 20-year increments. This will help your utility’s board and management make informed decisions about rate setting, future debt-service requirements, and future revenue requirements. In preparing a CIP, there are several things to consider:
Will current facilities reach their design capacity soon?
What new equipment, services, or facilities are needed to meet the demand of your customers?
What current system components will require significant repair, rehabilitation, or replacement?
Will failure to upgrade existing facilities result in regulatory violations or enforcement actions?
What are the most critical improvement needs, and what is the urgency of meeting those needs?
What benefits do the improvements provide to the system and its customers?
What are the available options for financing the improvements?
Can regular resources of the systems fully fund future capital projects, and which projects will require outside financing?
How do financing options for improvements relate to the annual budgeting process?
Use the assistance of a consulting engineer to prepare cost estimates for major capital improvement projects that the community will need in the future.
RCAP and Midwest Assistance Program, Inc. (MAP), RCAP’s regional partner, assists communities by being a resource to help plan, prepare, and execute a comprehensive strategy to sustain your community’s system(s) now and into the future. To be a good steward of your infrastructure, technical, managerial, and financial responsibilities are interconnected – one cannot be sustainable without the other. As a community leader, you need to enable the community to “look around corners” to identify potential expenses and maintenance to their systems and provide a fair and equitable rate structure for the community to “invest” in the future of your most valuable resource.
RCAP’s Managerial and Financial Hub has resources on management, rate setting, applying for infrastructure funds, and regionalization.
A Guidebook of Financial Tools. USEPA, Environmental Finance Program.
The Basics of Financial Management for Small-communities Utilities. RCAP Rural Communities Assistance Partnership.
Small System Guide to Developing and Setting Water Rates, Rural Community Assistance Program, Inc.
Rate Setting and Capacity Development, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland.
Many contaminants that can cause both short-term and long-term health effects have no taste, odor or color. If they are present in well water, a consumer — even one who has been drinking the water for years — would never know it. The only way to find out for sure is to test the well periodically.
And yet, how many times have we heard a well owner say one of the following?
“I’ve been drinking that water my whole life, and I’m not sick.”
“My well water is so much better tasting than town water.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my water; it doesn’t need testing.”
“MY water is FINE!”
To help these consumers continue to enjoy their water safely, Delaware’s Division of Public Health (DPH) has offered a program for several years where well owners can purchase a two-bottle well test kit for $4. This allows them to sample their well water and have it tested by the state’s own lab for the most common contaminants found in the area: bacteria, nitrates, sulfur, manganese and the like.
In 2019, DPH’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program contracted with SERCAP to provide a series of workshops for well owners and to distribute these same test kits for free to all who requested them. SERCAP held seven in-person workshops for well owners in different locations in the two lower Delaware counties. Despite best attempts, the attendance was disappointing overall, with most workshops serving less than six (6) people. SERCAP resolved to alter the program in the second year, using lessons learned from the 2019 efforts.
Part of the original intent of the program was for SERCAP to plot the water test results in order to identify any contaminant plumes. However, a disconnect with the state lab resulted in only the owners receiving the test reports, not SERCAP.
When 2020 came around, so did COVID, and the program was delayed by state-required isolation and SERCAP restrictions on staff contact from March to mid-June. Workshops were switched to a virtual format and attendance improved, with evening sessions being the most popular. Without the need to travel to on-site locations for the workshops, staff time was reduced, and budgeted funds were re-purposed to buy padded envelopes and pay postage to mail out the test kits, along with instructions for proper bacteria sampling.
When Senator Tom Carper visited the SERCAP office in Frankford, he gave the program a tremendous boost because the event was covered by all the local TV stations. This helped spread the message that the free sample kits were available to the public. Between the news broadcasts in late November and the end of the grant in December, SERCAP’s Delaware office handed out 184 well test kits.
The plan for a future grant round is to use the 2019 mailing list to survey recipients on whether they actually used their kits, and to ask if they will share a copy of their results with SERCAP for the purposes of mapping results and identifying potential problem areas.
Well experts recommend testing private wells every year for bacteria and pH, and every year or two for nitrate — especially in agricultural areas or places where nitrogen might be more prevalent. Private labs can charge upwards of $100 for the same array of tests that the Delaware private well kits cover, so the $4 test kits are a bargain any time of the year. Still, advertising that a $4 test was available for free apparently made a big difference in people’s willingness to test their well water.
Not all states have robust, subsidized programs as is the case with Delaware. Because of this, RCAP has developed a national private well program to help educate and serve the more than 23 million well owners across America. The program, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, provides outreach, education, and technical assistance to well owners, private well professionals and key stakeholders. Because most well owners have no idea what is in their water, in 2020, RCAP added a free well test kit addition to our existing programming based on feedback around homeowner demand. For more information on this program and to find out who to contact for private well support in your state, please check out our private well webpage: https://www.rcap.org/environmental-programs/private-wells/.
The aftermath of a storm can turn a community upside down. When stormwater and groundwater enter a sewer system, the inflow and infiltration (I&I) can cause overflows and sewage backups, increase wear and tear on the system, and produce enormous quantities of dirty water that strain the capacity of treatment facilities. In systems with significant I&I issues, even modest rain events can overwhelm collection and treatment systems.
The Great Lakes Community Action Partnership (GLCAP) condition assessment team in Ohio brings clarity to rural communities in desperate need.
The GLCAP Condition Assessment Team in Ohio helps small systems tackle the environmental challenges of summer downpours by helping them find the most critical problem areas of a system, strategically target repair and replacement dollars, and plan for future improvements. Since 2018, the GLCAP team has delivered condition assessment services to dozens of small systems.
Through generous grants from the Ohio Water Development Authority, Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) acquired equipment to conduct condition assessment. This includes: a 3D LiDAR scanner for manhole inspections, acoustical testing equipment for rapid assessment of sewer mains, self-propelled and push cameras for sewer line inspection, advanced inspection management software, smoke testing equipment, sewer flow loggers, GPS equipment, rugged tablets, and associated safety gear. The equipment, in conjunction with the RCAP GIS team’s web and mobile data collection apps, makes for an exceptional field data collection and reporting program that can help small systems plan to lessen future environmental impacts.
Conducting Condition Assessment
Condition assessment evaluates the current state of a community’s water and wastewater infrastructure, helps estimate remaining useful life expectancy, and identifies the areas most in need of cleaning and repair. A typical visit might involve identifying potential sources of I&I utilizing flow tracking, smoke testing, and pipe inspections. This allows RCAP to provide insight into the origin of I&I, document problem areas, and recommend customized solutions.
Manhole inspections, which are key for understanding the overall health of a sewer system, can be time consuming and generate a large of amount of data. Using the 3D LiDAR manhole scanner, RCAP improves efficiency in the field and collects higher quality data, with videos and 360-degree images offer communities an unparalleled view of their manhole structures. Standardized reporting methods and simple viewer programs ease the process of sorting and reviewing large quantities of inspection data.
Valves, another key component of every water utility system, provide the first line of defense for controlling the impact of distribution system disruptions. Managing valves requires assessment of their condition, and a valve exercising plan supports cyclical maintenance. RCAP provides the labor, mechanical tools, mapping, data collection, and summary reporting crucial to the process. Summary reports show the impact of maintenance efforts, meet regulatory standards, and support decision making for replacement schedules.
Tackling I & I Threats
In Adelphi, Ohio, a village about 70 miles north of the Kentucky border, staff working on a stormwater master plan called on RCAP to investigate I&I in the village sewer system. “Adelphi was in a really tough financial position,” explained Ben Howard, RCAP Senior Rural Development Specialist. “The village has a collection-only sewer utility which sends flows to neighboring Laurelville for treatment, so any I&I is costly.” Adelphi pays for every gallon of wastewater treated by Laurelville. When I&I enters the sewer collection system, it increases the number of gallons that are delivered to Laurelville, which in turn increases Adelphi’s bill.
The poor condition of the sewer system made it difficult to move forward with a stormwater plan, so the condition assessment team traveled to Adelphi to conduct some field investigation. They used the 3D LiDAR scanner tool and self-propelled crawler camera unit to scan and capture detailed images from inside manhole walls and sewer lines. They also used the acoustic rapid assessment tool to check for pipe blockages and aid in mapping the community sewer.
“The acoustic rapid assessment tool scores the condition of sewer lines based on the successful transmittance of sound from one manhole to the next,” Ben explained. “Most scored relatively well. Those that scored poorly were revisited near the center of town where there were signs of water backing up into manholes (surcharging). Then we used the crawler camera to see as far as we could.”
RCAP was able to identify the problem area where water was backing up due to settled-out debris in the center part of town. The village will likely use a vacuum truck to remove the debris. RCAP also followed up with smoke testing to detect inflow from private property.
Once RCAP staff know the full nature of the problem, they can work with a system’s consulting engineer to obtain a scope of work and estimate the cost to complete necessary repairs and improvements. By understanding what it costs to fix the problem, RCAP can help communities prioritize and develop a project timeline, seek board or council approval to pursue grants and subsidized loans for the project, and apply for funding.
I&I take away capacity within collection systems and burden a wastewater treatment plant’s ability to efficiently process sewage. Stormwater issues abound in rural communities whose assets are chronically in danger of disrepair when municipal budgets run dry. But if a wastewater utility can eliminate excess sources of stormwater, it will reduce chemical, electrical and capital costs.
Another winter storm headed your way? First one of the season? The best way to prevent winter water mishaps is to get ready for them!
Some may look forward to spring flowers as an indicator that the cold weather is behind us, but for operators, a hydrant poking out of a snowbank is even more exciting! As winter settles in, we need to remember that it is never too early to start preparing for the next seasonal changes. April showers might bring May flowers, but Jack Frost will be around the corner before we know it. Preparing is the best way to help prevent winter water mishaps. There are small steps we can take to better prepare for the cold season.
Hydrants should be clearly marked and free of snow to protect your residents and businesses from the ravages of a fire. Chad Carpenter, Operator in Charge for the Village of White Pigeon, Michigan and a Lieutenant for the local fire department stated, “even a couple of minutes in a fire can be an eternity and life threatening”. Educating residents and snowplow drivers to keep hydrants free of snow can be the difference between life and death. While preparing your hydrant, remember to ensure that water is draining from the barrel to prevent it from freezing. This should occur after your fall flushing and before capping the hydrant.
Valves also need attention before the snow. Street valves need to have asphalt chipped away from the lids, and dirt and stones removed from all sides. At a minimum, all your critical valves need to be exercised annually. Even if the valve is operable, they can be buried under layers of ice and snow. So, make sure that your GIS system or even your simple hand drawings using street signs, buildings and hydrants as measuring points are up to date. Knowing exactly where your valves are, and which work saves precious time during an emergency.
Generators should not only be tested monthly but make sure that all fluids are topped off and starter batteries charged. Operators should be familiar with how to start the generator and thoroughly practiced in switching their system into its back-up or emergency mode. Additionally, simple placards or paperwork with clear instructions can be invaluable during an emergency.
Another simple and important thing to do in the fall is a walk around of all your well houses, pump houses, and lift stations. Checking for gaps around doors, windows, and pipes can help prevent unnecessary freeze ups in cold weather as well as unwanted pests during warmer weather.
Sending a fall letter or note in the water bills or monthly newsletter to your customers can be helpful in the winter season. This note can instruct your customers of the temperatures you want them to let water drip from their faucets in their homes and tell them to minimize their use of water if they become aware of a water break. Businesses and schools should be instructed that during long periods of shutdowns like holidays and breaks, to have a water flushing plan to ensure water age in the pipes is kept to a minimum to prevent disease and bacteria growth as well as bad odor and taste.
In addition to these preventative maintenance and customer education items, it is important that the Board is making the proper decisions to ensure that the fiscal staff can generate the revenue, so that the technical staff can properly operate, maintain, repair, replace, and improve the system to always deliver a safe a dependable water supply – no matter what the weather.
From February 28 to March 3, 2022, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) will host our annual Fly-In in Washington D.C. This event brings representatives from our six regional partners from across the country to meet with government agencies and to generate awareness for rural issues on Capitol Hill. Representatives meet with their members of Congress and reinforce the importance and value of federal programs for rural economic development and water and wastewater infrastructure.
To get an inside perspective on the Fly-In, I sat down with Brad Jarrett, the Arkansas State Coordinator for our southern partner, Communities Unlimited (CU). Jarrett has worked with CU for 12 years and has attended the Fly-In since 2020.
Tell me a little about your work with CU.
I work mostly on the environmental team. We do technical assistance for small, rural, underserved communities regarding community facilities for water and wastewater. Over the years, I have seen a need for this kind of technical assistance in small communities. We do a lot of good when we can connect their resources with our expertise and training. We bring a lot of good to the communities to empower them and help their water and wastewater operations function effectively.
How many Fly-Ins have you attended?
I’ve participated in two Fly-Ins so far, and I’m looking forward to my third this year! In 2019, I was promoted to the role of State Coordinator in Arkansas, and immediately began to look to attending the Fly-In. In 2020, I participated in person on Capitol Hill. In 2021, it was a virtual event, like this year.
For those unfamiliar, tell me about the Fly-In.
In person, it is very busy. You’re going up and down the Hill, talking with senators and representatives, or sitting in on meetings with others. I usually meet with members of Congress from Arkansas. It’s also a great opportunity to talk with your fellow technical assistance providers (TAP) to share experiences and knowledge. It is tiring and busy, but fun and rewarding because we are able to promote the work we are doing on the ground. Members of Congress always want to know what is going on in their areas, so we talk about the projects we have in the communities they serve.
As a TAP, what is the Fly-In like?
The best part of the Fly-In is really connecting. When you are at the Fly-In, it is a learning experience to be able to see firsthand what is on the mind of members of Congress. We want them to understand what we see on the ground. We want them to see exactly how funding impacts these underserved communities. It means a lot to me to be able to communicate with them. Not only are we providing technical assistance in the communities, but we are also communicating its impact to congressional leaders. We get to say, “This is where the need is, we see it.”
Sometimes, a member of Congress or their staff might have grown up in the communities we are talking about. I’ve met with staff from Senator Boozman’s office who are from the communities CU works in. In one meeting, I bonded with a staffer over a common local restaurant, Joe’s Diner. Joe’s Diner has these little crab claws that everyone loves. So we were able to talk and connect around a shared experience.
Have you had any stand-out experiences?
In 2020, Senator Boozman was coming off the Senate floor and couldn’t make our meeting. But he didn’t want us to leave without talking to him. He wanted to hear about our work in Arkansas. So, his staff took our team underground through the Senate, and we met him coming off the floor.
What do you think the impact of the Fly-In is for your local communities?
It is huge. The communities need a voice, and we are the voice. The communities know what technical assistance is needed, but they may need us to articulate it and share their stories. It is vital to share the importance of technical assistance. Before a community joins with CU, they may be struggling to meet compliance, get new infrastructure, or save money. When we help to provide these resources, like technical assistance and training, it helps them so much. When we complete a project, communities are always looking for more ways we can help them.
At the Fly-In, I’m there to listen to the congressional staff, but I’m there to tell the communities’ stories. I’m there to say, “We need this.” In 2021, with the virtual Fly-In, we had a local mayor, Mayor Tonya Kendrix of Hermitage, AR, get on the call. She was able to tell Senator Boozman about the assistance her community has received.
Do you have any advice for someone attending the Fly-In for the first time?
Be mindful of the process and context, especially virtually. It is your opportunity to ask questions and learn. Try to understand the big picture. I’d recommend attending the general sessions where everyone is speaking. I always want to attend those because it is a learning experience. I love to fish, I don’t care how many times I have gone fishing, I always learn something new. New things come up all the time in the field we work in, and we want to be ready for them. My advice is to take it all in, be as flexible as you can, and don’t be afraid to help out. It is a challenge but it is a learning experience.
To all the new people joining RCAP or experiencing the first Fly-In, every region in RCAP will support you. We work in a great network and everyone from the other regions is there to help. We are all working towards the same goals!
Learn more about the Fly-In here and follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #RCAPOnTheHill2022
Watch this video about CU’s work with Mayor Tonya Kendrix in Hermitage, AR https://vimeo.com/675469099