By Pete Antoniewicz
Any drinking water or wastewater treatment operation can be challenged by the demands of changing seasonal conditions or regulatory requirements. That is particularly true for operators who are forced to wear multiple hats at small- to medium-size utilities. Here are scores of links to informative and practical resources for operators associated with those utilities and for the municipalities and utility managers they serve. Even consulting engineers can use these links to inform customers and help them identify funding resources to move ahead with critical infrastructure projects.
Addressing Everyday Issues
Maintaining the continuity of water operations in the face of retirements and other personnel changes is challenging from both technical performance and compliance perspectives. This is especially true at smaller utilities where a good portion of the organizational memory can go out the door along with the departing worker.
Fortunately, the water industry comprises many people for whom the work is not just a 9-to-5 job, but also a passion for delivering the best possible results under even the most challenging conditions. For utilities and new operators who might benefit from communicating with these experienced associates, here are some major industry resources they can use to access that hands-on experience:
- American Water Works Association. AWWA is one of the leading resources for U.S. utilities of any size. The association offers a variety of webinars, training sessions, and videos that are available for free or at a discounted rate for AWWA members. The AWWA website also offers scores of resources for professional development as well as resources targeted directly to small systems.
- Local AWWA Chapters. Beyond the many resources of the national association, local AWWA sections offer both training opportunities and direct connections to peers who can share experiences on the challenges of local water conditions.
- Community Engineering Corps. This organization and its alliance partners — American Society of Civil Engineers, American Water Works Association, and Engineers Without Borders — provide assistance to underserved communities for utility-related projects. One such example is this engineering assistance, which paved the way to a $1-million grant for infrastructure improvements.
- Targeted Small-Community Assets. Beyond the EPA and AWWA, there are multiple smaller entities that offer assistance geared exclusively toward small or remotely situated utilities. The best thing about these grassroots organizations is that they maximize local opportunities for face-to-face communication and relationship building among peers and associates familiar with common challenges.
- WaterOperator.org aggregates web links for small system operators, including more than 11,000 training events and 17,000 document resources searchable by topic category, document type, and state location.
- The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) provides technical and workforce resources for drinking water and wastewater systems in small, rural communities. It works through six regional partners who provide programs and services for environmental infrastructure lending, water/wastewater services and training, and environmental financial planning, as well as housing and other community development efforts.
Identifying Special-Interest Resources For More Advanced Needs
Beyond technical assistance on day-to-day treatment and distribution operations, there are also organizations that can help overworked water system managers and operators stay up to date with a variety of broader challenges. These include topics ranging from general utility management to specific regulatory compliance requirements.
- Utility Management. The Environmental Finance Center Network (EFCN) goes beyond technical education to include past and future learning-opportunities regarding business management, personnel management, and asset management topics ranging from grant writing and rate setting to sustainability and water loss reduction. It also connects interested utilities to the EFCN Smart Management for Small Water Systems Project.
- Lead And Copper Rule (LCR) Compliance. Moving forward, the proposed changes in the LCR revisions (LCRR) will affect every community water system in one way or another, whether through distribution system adjustments or school and childcare facility testing. The Lead Service Line Replacement (LSLR) Collaborative website provides a roadmap to the entire journey, as well as many other action-oriented resources.
Satisfying Labor And Training Concerns
Finding qualified water treatment personnel is tough enough. Finding them in sparsely populated communities quickly enough to keep pace with the retirements of long-term operators is harder yet. This video provides a capsule view of the NRWA Water Pro Apprenticeship program, which is aimed at helping small and rural water systems maintain the supply of more than 380,000 skilled personnel needed to support the nation’s water infrastructure.
Once qualified personnel are hired, giving them resources to keep pace with changing regulatory requirements or to face new operational challenges is critical.
- Water University offers in-service training across a variety of water and wastewater operations — including regulations, technical training, emergency response training, cybersecurity training, and environmental protection, as well as general utility policies, management, and financing.
- The WaterPro Community provides a way for workers at extremely small utilities to network with others in positions like theirs to share knowledge and save time troubleshooting and solving problems when they have no one to collaborate with in their own utility.
Solving Ever-Present Funding Challenges
Even the most technically experienced water treatment operations can be stymied by funding challenges. Fortunately, there are funding opportunities that extend beyond the State Revolving Funds.
- The EPA provides multiple types of funding to support many of the organizations that assist small- to medium-sized water utilities. This includes funding for training and technical assistance to ensure that those utilities are able to keep pace with personnel turnover and evolving regulatory requirements. It also offers direct disaster funding opportunities for emergency work and repairs at water utilities challenged by events that threaten to disrupt the flow of clean, safe drinking water to their customers and provides links to other federal programs for small system infrastructure.
While this in-depth guide to setting small drinking water system rates is not a direct funding source, it does offer guidance that can help utility managers establish justification for more realistic cost recovery.
- The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) backed by the EPA offer financial assistance for water and wastewater utilities of all sizes.
- This U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program available through its USDA Rural Development office offers a loan and grant program to help fund qualified projects for water treatment and wastewater treatment projects in eligible rural areas.
- The NRWA’s Rural Water Loan Fund is another funding opportunity for planning, upgrade, energy-efficiency, and disaster-recovery projects.
- The LSLR Collaborative also offers insights on how to tackle the challenges of financing the soon-to-be-enacted LCRR requirements with assistance from federal, state, and local funding initiatives.
- FEMA Public Assistance is available to repair, replace, or restore disaster-damaged publicly owned facilities, as well as protect against future events through hazard mitigation. This video shows how small communities can take advantage of such assistance — including steps they can take in advance to streamline the process for when an emergency occurs.
If You Are Not Yet An Active Part Of The Extended Water Community…
…consider getting involved now. Even the smallest, most resource-challenged utilities have something to gain from being part of a larger water-industry community. With modest dues, access to free resources, and discounts for additional valuable reference documents and educational resources, membership certainly has its privileges. No matter how small the utility budget, consider allocating a modest percentage of it toward dues in several of the most relevant industry organizations. Doing so helps personnel stay generally informed, access specific resources, and capitalize on valuable peer-to-peer communication. Aside from general meetings and training sessions, some organizations offer very specific avenues for sharing resources with neighboring systems that have similar concerns.
If You Are Already An Active Participant…
…take the opportunity to pay it forward. Water utility operators and managers who have experience with additional educational, operational, or funding resources for small water systems not covered here and would like to share them with their peers can provide that information by posting a comment at the end of this article. We will update the article links periodically as new suggestions arrive.