Plan to Maintain, Plan to Sustain
5 MIN READ

Plan to Maintain, Plan to Sustain

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. 

REFERENCES

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.

May 17, 2022
“But My Water Is Fine!” — Lessons Learned in Promoting Well Test Kits to Consumers
Drinking Water | 4 MIN READ

“But My Water Is Fine!” — Lessons Learned in Promoting Well Test Kits to Consumers

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/.  

April 14, 2022
RCAP’s Condition Assessment Team Offers Expertise to Rural Communities in Ohio
Infrastructure | 5 MIN READ

RCAP’s Condition Assessment Team Offers Expertise to Rural Communities in Ohio

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.  

March 28, 2022
Tips from a TAP: Preventing Winter Mishaps
3 MIN READ

Tips from a TAP: Preventing Winter Mishaps

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.  

March 10, 2022
A Look Inside RCAP’s Fly-In: Sharing the Stories and Needs of Rural Communities with Congress
Policy and Advocacy | 6 MIN READ

A Look Inside RCAP’s Fly-In: Sharing the Stories and Needs of Rural Communities with Congress

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.

Anything else?

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

February 23, 2022
Beyond Flint: Updated Lead and Copper Guidance for Public Water Systems
Drinking Water | 4 MIN READ

Beyond Flint: Updated Lead and Copper Guidance for Public Water Systems

Over the last 50 years, a variety of rules have impacted the amount of lead in drinking water, in addition to monitoring requirements imposed on public water systems (PWS). One might ask, “Why is so much emphasis placed on monitoring and controlling lead levels in drinking water?”  

The answer is simple: Lead can negatively affect almost every organ and system in your body. This issue entered into the national spotlight more recently with lead seepage into the drinking water in Flint, Michigan causing a major public health emergency. The Flint water crisis revealed dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water, further propelling the conversations around the dangers of lead. Flint is just one of thousands of communities facing similar challenges.  

Lead exposure is especially harmful to young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not identified any safe blood lead levels in children, and it can cause impaired mental development, IQ deficits, shorter attention spans, and low birth weights. Lead exposure can also cause increased blood pressure in adults. The degree of harm done to one’s body from lead exposure depends on several factors. A few determining factors to consider are the frequency and dose amount of the exposure, age, and an individual’s susceptibility factors as a whole. Lead is not only found in drinking water, but is also present in the air, dust, soil, and foods we consume, as well as in the paint in homes 

 The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 set a lead maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 50 parts per billion (ppb). In 1986, the Lead Ban amendment took effect, requiring PWS to use “lead-free” pipe, solder, and flux to install or repair any public water supply lines. This Lead Ban included “lead-free” materials in residential homes or commercial facilities connected to a public water supply. Before this ban, solders used for water pipe joints typically contained about 50 percent lead. In 1991, EPA implemented the first Lead and Copper Rule or (LCR) requiring utilities or PWS to monitor for lead contamination in drinking water and to provide corrosion control treatment if lead levels exceed an action level of 15 ppb.  

Since 1991, there have been several revisions to the LCR that impose greater responsibilities on utility operators. Why are we talking about this now? Recent actions by the EPA and current administration are accelerating the push to more effectively remove lead from the nation’s drinking water. The reduction of lead levels found in drinking water is at the forefront of the EPA’s current initiative to ensure all Americans receive safe potable drinking water straight from the tap. A Lead and Copper Rule Revision (LCRR) has been in the works for a few years now, changing the roles and responsibilities of utility operators and PWS. On January 15, 2021, the EPA published a regulatory revision to the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for lead and copper under the authority of the SDWA. A summary of the revision states:  

These revised requirements provide greater and more effective protection of public health by reducing exposure to lead and copper in drinking water. The rule will better identify high levels of lead, improve the reliability of lead tap sampling results, strengthen corrosion control treatment requirements, expand consumer awareness and improve risk communication. 

For the first time, the summary goes on to state that public water systems will be required to test for lead levels in water at schools and childcare facilities.  

Later in January 2021, President Biden issued “Executive Order 13990,” placing a ‘freeze’ on the LCRR published by EPA pending a 60-day review by the Biden Administration. On March 12, 2021, EPA published revisions to the LCRR after the ‘freeze’, which extended the effective date and compliance dates for PWS nationally. If you are not familiar with the Lead and Copper Rule Long-Term Revision, you can find additional information here.  

In December 2021, the White House launched the Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan to deliver clean drinking water through the replacement of lead pipes. The President’s action plan allocates the EPA $15 billion over five years through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds authorized in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for lead service line replacement.

RCAP provides training and technical assistance on these issues. You can reach out to our regional partners for further assistance. If we all work together, we can continue to better protect our youth and community members from the risks of harmful lead exposure!  

January 26, 2022
The Road to Arsenic Free Drinking Water for Arvin, California
Drinking Water | 9 MIN READ

The Road to Arsenic Free Drinking Water for Arvin, California

If you’ve ever driven through California’s Central Valley, odds are you may have missed a pretty resilient small town tucked away in Kern County. Located just a few miles Southwest of Bakersfield, the town of Arvin, CA has often found itself in the news due to being on the wrong side of a long uphill battle to get into drinking water compliance. Then one day, Arvin Community Services District (CSD) general manager, Raul Barraza, sent out an email to a group of Arvin residents and leaders in early October 2021  to share some big news about the Arvin Arsenic Mitigation Project. Imagine my excitement when I heard  that after 13 years, the water in Arvin had finally been deemed safe to drink in accordance with Safe Drinking Water Act Standards! 

Raul also asked me to speak at the announcement ceremony event, to which I gladly agreed. But when I got down to writing my speech, I started to reflect on what the Arsenic Mitigation Project has meant to me, not only professionally, but on a personal level as well. I knew I couldn’t simply write down what it meant, so I decided to wing it and go on stage and just speak from the heart. In hindsight, maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea.

For me, the story of Arvin’s arsenic woes goes back way before my time with Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC). My family moved to Arvin way back in 1994, when I was only three-years-old. Back then there was only one traffic light in the whole 13,000 population town! Arvin has since boomed into a three traffic light town with a population of 21,000 people, but it is still very much ignored and lacks many resources. My parents were farm workers that became fairly involved with local grassroots organizations, like the Committee for a Better Arvin, during my middle school and high school years. The big issue back then was a county dump site just a few miles out of town that would emit foul odors that the residents were not thrilled about. We would go to strikes and demonstrations to get the county government to relocate the dump. The effort was a success, and this really started shaping my worldview – to care about environmental justice issues affecting small towns that often go ignored.

Then in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the threshold of the Arsenic maximum contaminant level (MCL) from 50 to 10 parts per billion (ppb), which made Arvin completely fall out of compliance. There had always been water quality issues so we never drank the tap water, mostly due to taste and turbidity, but the arsenic violations were intermittent as the arsenic levels fluctuated between 30-60ppb. Arvin would only occasionally be out of compliance under the original 50ppb MCL. That was just the way of life out there. We drank out of water bottles or the refillable 5-gallon jugs – never the tap. I just thought that’s the way it was everywhere.

But then I left for college in the Bay Area and everyone out there drank and refilled their reusable bottles straight from the tap. It was a huge culture shock. And I was like, “Wait a minute, we’ve been deliberately told not to do this back home for as long as I can remember! Then again, we don’t have the luxury of having pristine Hetch Hetchy water coming out of our taps.” I also remember my first year at UC Berkeley(Cal), taking an Introduction to Environmental Science course. This course touched on a lot of environmental issues from climate change to eutrophication, to air and water quality depletion all over the country. I also very distinctly remember South Kern County, and specifically Arvin, being presented as a case study during a lecture for bad air quality caused by smog from major transportation and commerce arteries such as I-5 and CA-99 and particulate matter pollution from all the agricultural activity in the Central Valley. That just felt crummy. Here I am in a class with people from all over the world from places like San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul – you name it!  While their cities were lauded as examples of forward thinking and progress, their first exposure to where I’m from was through this case study pointing out how terrible the air quality was there. It felt bad seeing that as our claim to fame. I sunk into my seat that day. But that day also made me want to do something – anything – to help change that perception.

I chose to forego a research job up in Napa and Sonoma County vineyards to look for something in the environmental justice realm closer to home instead. I had trouble finding work back home, even with a bachelor’s degree from Cal, but I was determined to stay and help. Months went by and no luck. I could see why the massive brain drain trend happens in places like the Central Valley. Young people don’t have many options or opportunities, so when they leave for college they tend to leave for good. My first gig ended up being as a  warehouse worker at a cold storage facility packing and packaging grapes for export. It took a bit of swallowing my pride, but I ended up having a great time and meeting many inspiring, hard working people there. 

Arvin CSD’s Project Site for the Arvin Arsenic Mitigation Project

Fortunately, I found out about an open position at the Community Water Center (CWC), a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring all Californianas have access to safe and affordable drinking water. A large portion of my work was organizing, advocacy and Agua4All outreach work. Agua4All is a program The California Endowment started  in collaboration with RCAC, CWC and Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation  to increase access to and consumption of safe drinking water in schools and communities through the installation of bottle filling stations, provision of reusable water bottles and interim treatment solutions where necessary. The pilot project launched in Arvin. I worked closely with RCAC during the Agua4All work so I eventually made the jump from CWC to RCAC. I worked with Lee Schegg, Randy Vessels, Dave Wallis, and Sarah Buck to get the Arvin Interim Solutions project off the ground. We ran pilot tests, installed arsenic removal filters and protective cabinets for the first phase of the interim solutions project. We also developed the manual that was used to operate the units up until this year! I eventually took over the data management and quality assurance role and made sure all the lab tests were negative and that the filters were running effectively. All in all, we managed over 170 filters at multiple sites all over Arvin including all of the schools, the parks, health clinics and more for several years. It was a very rewarding position as I got to visit the sites and build an even closer bond with my community. I even had to run around and sample the filters for 1,2,3-TCP. 1,2,3-TCP, at the time, was an unregulated contaminant, an agricultural byproduct that was known to cause cancer and other negative health impacts. The data was used in establishing the 1,2,3-TCP thresholds for the filters used to remove arsenic that had already been installed.I spoke in front of the CA State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB), CA’s regulatory agency, during the TCP MCL setting process, again citing my work with the Arvin Arsenic Mitigation project. The project has had a huge impact on not only my life, but thousands of people’s lives as well.

Arvin CSD’s board members receive their compliance letter from EPA.

But now here we are in 2021, with the EPA Compliance letter in hand. Arvin did it. They got the job done. After years of interim solutions, in the end they succeeded in drilling six new production wells, built a new million-gallon water tank, and brought thousands of feet of new pipelines online, implementing a long term solution to provide safe water to the entire community.

With all this in mind, I headed over to the announcement ceremony on Oct. 12 with some general ideas of what I wanted to say. I was greeted by many big names in the water regulatory world from the federal, state, and local levels. I shared the stage with Joaquin Esquivel (SWRCB Chairman), Deborah Jordan (EPA Regional Administrator), Dee Jaspar (lead engineer for the project), the Arvin CSD Board and their General Manager, representatives from Congressmen Rudy Salas’ and David Valadao’s offices and State Senator Melissa Hurtado herself. They all spoke eloquently about the project, the funding details, the technical ups and downs, and even touched on the interim solutions projects RCAC helped implement. 

Arvin CSD’s board being recognized by State Senator Melissa Hurtado.

By the time it was my turn to speak, there wasn’t much for me to add on the project itself. So I ended up sharing this story, My Story. And I ended up getting emotional up there on the podium reflecting on all of it,thinking about how my friends and family, many of whom still live in Arvin, no longer need to worry about the water. Being able to help ensure that peace of mind for them felt very, very rewarding. Seeing the local Arvin CSD board members receive accolade upon accolade that night from state and federal leaders also instilled a great sense of pride in my hometown. The evening was a huge success. Raul Barraza and Joaquin Esquivel even came over to have a celebratory dinner at my parent’s place!

I hope that this whole 13-year, $20 million project not only restores the people’s faith in the drinking water, but also restores their faith in the democratic process. The system gets a lot of flak for ineffectiveness. But this small town proved that with a lot of hard-work, patience, and teamwork, good things are still very much possible. It just takes having the right people and attitude in place. This was a unified effort from the bottom up for the community. The community, local water board, state and federal regulators, and numerous technical assistance providers all came together to make it happen.

And who knows, maybe now some intro-level environmental science courses out there will start sharing this Arvin case study instead!

December 21, 2021
Shared Solutions Bring Small Yet Meaningful Victories in Regional Collaboration
Regionalization | 3 MIN READ

Shared Solutions Bring Small Yet Meaningful Victories in Regional Collaboration

As an operator, manager, or board member of a small water system, you may feel overwhelmed by the challenges your system routinely faces. While larger systems’ challenges often demand more complex solutions, small victories in regional collaboration can ease the challenges small systems encounter. RCAP has assisted with establishing partnerships among several communities in the last few years to lessen the burden on each individual system’s responsibilities. In these systems, the operators work with other operators in times of need, whether in an urgent situation or on a more routine basis. Here are a few real-world examples that led to solving several challenges.

In a small municipal water authority in Pennsylvania, serving 130 residents, the new operator had no previous operating experience and needed significant guidance to proficiently operate the system. In working with this system, RCAP found the operator the help they needed from a neighboring system’s operator. On a routine basis, the operators would meet to discuss new and ongoing issues with each of their systems. This partnership eventually led to an ongoing working relationship that has proved to be very beneficial to the less experienced operator.

In another part of Pennsylvania, a small non-transient non-community rural water system needed a certified operator for the small filter plant that served their customers to comply with the regulations. The owners of the system were burdened by this task and did not know how to make this happen. RCAP provided a list of operators in the area that were willing to operate the system and assisted in contacting the certified operators identified. Within a few weeks, the system obtained the services from one of the certified operators, which alleviated the non-compliance of the system for not obtaining a certified operator.

In another example, a small water association serving 60 residents in rural Pennsylvania was experiencing significant water loss but did not know the exact location of the leak because the association did not have sufficient leak detection equipment, or the experience needed to operate it effectively. In consultation with RCAP, they found leak detection assistance from a neighboring system. This system was open and willing to assist with their equipment. The leak was located quickly and the repair was completed within two days.

All these examples show how effective regional collaboration can be even at the simplest and most informal level. Even though each solution was relatively small, the collaborations had significant impact on each community. If the first operator had not reached out to a more experienced operator for advice on important issues, where would they be now? If the second system did not collaborate with a certified operator to operate the system and instead continued in violation, what would that have meant for the system and its customers? If the system in the third example did not reach out for help on the major leak, could it have dewatered the system, impacted customers water service, create a financial hardship, or possibly severely impact their distribution system? The truth is that we often do not fully appreciate the value in the small victories of collaborating with one another.

As a manager, operator, or board member of a small water system, what are some challenges your utility will face this year? How might partnerships help meet these challenges? RCAP offers free training and assistance around regional collaboration and has access to partnership tools to help facilitate your potential regional collaboration efforts. Regional collaboration as one tool to build capacity while limiting impacts of the challenges each system faces.

November 15, 2021
Be Proactive: The Importance of Regular Wastewater Lagoon Maintenance
Wastewater | 4 MIN READ

Be Proactive: The Importance of Regular Wastewater Lagoon Maintenance

There are over 8,000 wastewater lagoons permitted to treat raw sewage in the United States. Most wastewater operators will tell you that the low operation and maintenance (O&M) cost of a lagoon is a significant advantage over a package plant or other mechanical treatment process. But it’s important to note that low O&M costs should not equate to no O&M. The key to keeping O&M costs to a minimum is to be proactive with your maintenance instead of reactive.

Lagoons tend to be more neglected than other types of wastewater treatment facilities. “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the common philosophy among many wastewater operators. The problem with this is that without regular inspection and proper maintenance, the lagoon will fail, and the community’s wastewater will not be adequately treated. This can lead to compliance issues when the effluent doesn’t meet the permit limits, and even public health issues if untreated wastewater flows into public streams.

One’s O&M needs will vary depending on many different aspects such as the type of lagoon, the size of the facility, how many cells the lagoon has, the type and amount of waste you are treating, and the equipment used in the treatment process. Even though it’s not required in many states, we highly recommend that an operator does a daily inspection of the facility.

Performing Daily Inspections 

In the daily visit to the wastewater treatment facility, the operator should inspect the lagoon for scum, grease clumps, and other floating items that can block the pipes.

The operator should also be aware of any new or unusual odors that could indicate a problem in the treatment process, such as a malfunction of an aerator or chlorinator. Odors can also indicate an algae overload, an influx of septic water from the collection system, illegal dumping, a dead animal, or many other things that might require additional investigation/action. Plus, if your pond is near any residences, odor control must be a priority.

Other things to do during the daily inspection include:

Inspect and clean the bar screen at the headworks
This will prevent unwanted solids from entering the lagoon from the collection system

Check for blockages by confirming flow into the facility and between cells of the lagoon
Pipes can collapse and cause a blockage
Pipes can be blocked by animals including turtles or a build-up of solids
Inspect aerators and curtains/baffles to confirm they are anchored in place as designed
Weather can damage these devices by moving them around and interrupting power service, which interferes with their effectiveness in the treatment process

Check the chlorine pump/feeder, including any chemicals fed in the treatment process
Check site for gas chlorine leaks
Ensure the supply of chlorine and other chemicals is sufficient

Make sure the chlorine contact chamber is clean and free of any sludge or debris
Too much sludge can lead to sludge bulking in the chamber, causing high total suspended solids (TSS) levels and other parameter deviations

Maintaining the Landscape

Maintain the grass on the levee/dike/berm on a regular basis, depending on your location and the time of year. Cutting the grass around your lagoon regularly is extremely important to prevent the clumping that occurs when you allow grass to grow very tall before you cut it. Clumping can lead to erosion because of uneven grass coverage. The grass on that levee should look like a well-groomed lawn!

Repair any holes in the levee as quickly as possible.

Do not allow trees to grow on the levee/dike/berm. Their roots can penetrate the levee, causing costly damage. When possible, remove any tree within 50 feet of your lagoon. Trees can block natural airflow, which can affect the dissolved oxygen (DO) transfer in the lagoon, which in turn can affect the health of the bacteria in the lagoon.

Other Maintenance

Aerators and curtains/baffles should be serviced regularly as required by the manufacturer.

Last but not least, check the fence around your facility. There should be no holes in the fencing and no evidence of burrowing under the fence. Always lock the gate when you leave the site.

Taking these steps will ensure that the O&M costs of your lagoon remain low, and the facility continues to operate in top shape.

October 13, 2021