Operator Record-Keeping Tips

December 10, 2019 | Blog

By: Tom Fulton, Senior Environmental Management Consultant, Communities Unlimited

Do you have your flight plan ready?

We can all visualize a trip to the airport and all it entails: going through security, waiting in the terminal, seeing whether your departure time has changed. There also are the worries of whether you’ve misplaced your passport or ticket, or even your boarding pass, which would keep you from boarding your flight.

In instances like this, having the proper documentation is vital to making the trip a smooth one. But it isn’t just the passengers who need such documentation or checks. Even the crew and the airplane itself have documentation and checks that must be made before, during and after each flight to ensure the safety of the flight and its passengers.

This article is not about airplane safety, but the scenario described gives similar insight into the documentation, record-keeping compliance standards we have as managers, operators and maintenance technicians in successfully managing water plants and distribution systems. Many communities’ largest public assets represented by water system components and investments made in them. Customers can see the water plant or the water tower, but usually have no idea of the distribution system, source water intake, water rights, staffing or rules and regulations associated with daily operation. If customers counted how many times per day they used water, it might surprise them. Our duties and responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act, in essence, are to protect public health.

A Management Imperative

A well-managed water system will maintain proper records and documents regarding financial sustainability; water production and quality; federal and state agency regulations; asset management; energy costs; water loss; staff development; planning for infrastructure improvements; and measuring customer satisfaction.

Teamwork Structure

Most water systems are led by a board or council, so a water system manager is not the sole authority. An experienced manager should know their daily responsibility may cover financial duties, safety, training, water production costs, distribution problems, and regulatory compliance. This manager will have a plan where they can provide documentation for compliance, budgeting, infrastructure improvement plans and replacement costs to almost anyone who may ask, including their board or council. This manger will hire staff and have a management structure where they can give ownership to supervisors and staff in specific areas of responsibility. A few examples of responsibility designations are:  Bookkeeper – billing and collections; Water Treatment Plant Supervisor – water production and quality; Distribution Supervisor – meter reading, line replacement or repair, water quality; Maintenance Supervisor – light duty to heavy duty maintenance tasks; and Laboratory supervisor or staff – records maintenance and other lab compliance responsibilities.

All of these staff positions will have similar responsibilities for monitoring, reporting, record keeping, due dates, compliance, notification requirements, investigation, and addressing enforcement actions by regulatory agencies. Compiling all this information to develop plans, budgets and compliance strategies will take time to understand. It will also take time to get to where a system can use these valuable, historical records to assist in future development.

Training is a Valuable Record

Training needs and self-training abilities will vary greatly with experience and the level of licenses of each operator or staff member. For new operators, pulling out the rule book and becoming knowledgeable about individual licenses, compliance, and regulations to succeed in acquiring the specific mandated licenses should be a division goal the system manager establishes. The ultimate goal is to help operators learn by doing – training them on existing rules, regulations, and policies in their daily job duties. They will learn as they do the job how to maintain proper records of it. The who, what, when, where and why of compliance are well-described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (such as at https://www.epa.gov/dwstandardsregulations), state environmental manuals, and training programs.

General Tips

With today’s technology, a computer should be enough to store most records, but all staff may have different records to keep and store. Some records are old and are stored in various formats. Some records may be documents needed by someone at a future date or inspection.

Many documents are infrequently used, but if stored properly, they will keep stress levels down. Printed documents should be filed in lockable filing cabinets stored inside a room with a lock and not stuck in a corner where anybody can pick them up and forget to bring them back.

If you are just starting, don’t feel bad about the order in which you keep your records. Just remember, you are developing a record system that will be used by you or someone else in the future to prove you completed a task. Once you start, you can always reorganize your filing system later. You never know what you might find when you do. I once went through files and came across a 1961 telegram from then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson informing my board that funds had been approved to build the water system. 

State or federal legislatively created documents for funding of water districts, water projects or systems are very important. These are called creation documents. Keep these documents in a secure place.

Going back to the telegram from Western Union, I think I can safely say our communication and documentation has dramatically changed over the years. Transforming these old documents into current standards of documentation is essential. Make sure you find the time to protect these types of records.

Water Systems Have Taken Off, Requiring Documentation

Like the airline analogy, airplanes have not been around for very long. We overlook the luxuries modern technology and ingenuity have brought us in the last 100 years. The American small water system has made improvements, much like the airline industry. Many of us have parents or grandparents who did not have a public water or wastewater system.  

Water professionals have built up our public water systems over the past century. Waterborne diseases have decreased drastically, and Americans are living longer, as science and environmental knowledge have increased.  The regulations to improve water quality have also significantly increased.

Over time, the American waterworks industry has made continuous advancement in delivering public drinking water supplies throughout the country, building upon new discoveries of water quality so that most communities have a specific quantity of safe drinking water at all times. The federal and state agencies have developed rules and regulations to guide water systems in the delivery of safe drinking water. Our agencies and water system staff have used records to track and continually make improvements in all areas of our public water systems.

The customers of public drinking water systems use our product an estimated 20 times daily or more. Let’s not forget the water system infrastructure has built-in fire protection for customers and communities.

We ask a lot of our water professionals and operators who work with hazardous chemicals, equipment, climates, all hours of the day and night, and in our roads and streets.  It would be nice to write that there are only 978,000 forms and records required and be specific about each, but most water systems are unique, whether groundwater or surface water or somewhere in between. Water systems have similar processes, but each plant and distribution system have been engineered with specialized equipment used to purify, transport or hold water at various stages. All have manufacturers’ recommendations for proper maintenance, so documenting maintenance records is a must.

During the last 100 years, we have taken one of the most precious public resources and have created fantastic public water systems with water that is reliable and safe to drink. As you are sorting through records or forms as a water industry employee, operator or mayor, remember our main duty under the Safe Drinking Water Act is to protect the public health!