The online RCAP Resources Library has a variety of resources that are useful to small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

Operating a Water System: The Technical Parts Explained for Non-Technical People

An important function of the governing body of a water utility is to oversee the work of the system’s operator(s) and the overall maintenance of the system. This involves occasionally making big decisions, which could include hiring a new operator or allocating thousands of dollars to buy a new pump. But what if you’re on the board and don’t know the technical terms for the industry or how a system is run? All members of a board should have a basic knowledge of what it takes to manage and operate a system so they can make more informed decisions about it.

One way to be informed is to talk to your operator. Invite your operator to a meeting so he/she can talk about what is required of the job. You could also ask him/her to take you on a tour of the plant and system. You can truly use all of your senses when visiting the facilities, and this will give you an appreciation for what it takes to operate the system. Your operator should be willing to answer your questions so you understand how your system works. Most operators are justifiably proud of their work and welcome opportunities to share their knowledge and work. This will benefit both you and the operator. You’ll know the particulars of your system, and the operator will feel the utility’s leadership cares about what he/she does.

Another way to learn a bit is by getting some information on your own. RCAP has produced resources that explain the technical aspects of operating a water system in simple ways that non-technical people can understand.

Treatment of drinking water and wastewater is a process that involves use of many types of resources: human; natural; energy; knowledge of physical, biological and chemical processes; use of math; staying current with state and federal rules and regulations. There is space here to say only a little bit about producing drinking water. Wastewater will be the topic of a future issue.

Drinking water treatment

Drinking water treatment is fairly straightforward. Most small water systems use groundwater for their water supply, but some use surface water. An early step is removing contaminants –turbidity, metals, arsenic, volatile and synthetic organic compounds, radionuclides or others specific to your area. There are chemical feed systems, coagulation basins or tanks (where the chemicals cause the contaminants to floc—clump together—and fall to the bottom of the basin), and filtration systems (which remove the floc that doesn’t fall). Some small water systems use other forms of contaminant removal, like ion exchange, activated alumina, membranes or softening. Disinfection, which inactivates biological contaminants in the water (bacteria, protozoa, algae and viruses), is the next step. Your system may use chemical disinfection, like chlorine, or it may use ultraviolet light or ozone. Getting the water out to customers happens in the distribution system. Your system may use a water tower to provide storage and pressure or may have ground level or underground storage tanks for finished water. You may have sampling stations, booster disinfection injection points, shutoff valves and fire hydrants. The distribution system takes an enormous amount of maintenance because it is where old pipes need to be replaced, where taste and odor problems can arise, or where leaks can occur.

Where to learn more 

RCAP has produced two publications for members of a utility’s governing body:

These guides provide basic explanations of the treatment processes in plain, everyday language for non-technical audiences. Included are many diagrams, illustrations and photos that explain the treatment steps.

The guides are available in print from RCAP staff in the field or as PDF on the RCAP website, which you can view and print yourself on your own computer.

There is also a multimedia companion to the publications. An animated diagram shows the drinking water and wastewater treatment processes, and video segments explain some of the steps and activities  that an operator considers in each part.