It’s been over 20 years since the historic Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, the largest known instance of waterborne disease in U.S. history.
But the impact of the outbreak — which affected over 400,000 people in Milwaukee, WI and killed almost 100— is still evident today through the Partnership for Safe Water.
Created in 1995 to help prevent another Cryptosporidium or similar outbreak, the Partnership offers self-assessment and optimization programs for drinking water utilities. The six-organization alliance gives utilities the materials, resources, and guidance they need to analyze and improve performance, and pushes them to go above and beyond required regulatory levels. Utilities that complete Partnership programs are recognized with awards. The Partnership is a joint effort by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), U.S. EPA, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), and the Water Research Foundation (WRF).
Over 430 drinking water plants in the U.S. and Canada have participated in the Partnership’s original program, which is designed for treatment facilities. Over 150 systems have been a part of the Partnership’s newer optimization program for drinking water distribution systems, which was created in 2011. Any community water system that provides filtered surface water that maintains a residual disinfectant, or manages a water distribution system, is eligible for the Partnership’s programs.
“It is all about improving water quality,” says Barbara Martin, the manager for the Partnership for Safe Water with AWWA. “We have found that plants that complete the treatment program self-assessment experience an average of 60 percent lower effluent turbidity, which is one of the important markers for drinking water quality. In our distribution program, already utilities are using data from their assessment to identify problems with disinfectant residual that can be addressed immediately, and recognizing issues that may prevent pressure problems and main breaks down the line.”
Steps To Certification
There are four phases to both Partnership programs, which costs anywhere from $50 to $3,600 per year depending on the population served by the utility. The first is simply a commitment from the utility to take the program seriously.
“It is important everyone at the utility is on board for the program to be effective,” explained Martin. “You want to involve people from the top of the organization to the newest operators.”
Utilities enrolled in Partnership programs must be in full compliance with appropriate regulations for at least the preceding six months before they can begin. Once the signed application is accepted, the utility receives a packet containing the materials needed to begin the program.
In the second phase, the utility provides the Partnership with a year’s worth of baseline data. For utilities in the Partnership’s treatment program raw and filtered turbidity data is required. Distribution systems provide the Partnership with disinfectant residual data. Participants receive a technical manual that describes a systematic approach on assessing operations, design, administration, and maintenance practices, as well as software applications that provide trend graphs for data evaluation.
After all the data is collected, the utility enters phase three— self-assessment. In this phase, the utility examines the capabilities of its existing system’s operation and administration, identifies factors that limit performance, and develops a plan for self-improvement. This process typically takes anywhere from six months to one year. The utility then creates a report which is submitted to the Partnership and reviewed by a peer panel of industry experts across multiple vocations. If the panel approves the report, the utility receives the Directors Award, which recognizes its outstanding commitment to delivering superior quality drinking water to customers. Over 200 utilities have already won the Directors Award as part of the Partnership’s treatment program, and seven have won the same award for the distribution program.
Phase four of the program is optional. In this phase, utilities are assessed against extremely stringent performance goals. Thirteen utilities in the treatment program have completed this phase and as a result received the Excellence in Water Treatment Award. In the distribution program the requirements of this phase are still being determined.
Data is submitted every year a utility is part of the Partnership’s program.
“By submitting annual reports every year, the utility continues the optimization mindset,” said Tom Schippert, the Partnership for Safe Water Program’s Senior Coordinator. “Each year they reevaluate their goals, revisit the data, identity performance limiting factors, and make an action plan. We recognize utilities at five, 10, and 15 years with awards.”
Benefits Of The Program
While improved water quality is the main goal of the programs, there are several additional benefits to participating. For example, the in-depth analysis of operations required by the program can arm utilities with the data they need to justify or rule out major projects and capital expenses in the future.
“They can take what they learned in the self-assessment and bring it to their city and town officials,” says Martin, the manager of the Partnership. “It allows them to be proactive in addressing the utility’s future needs.”
The assessment can also point out inefficiencies and areas where a utility could potentially reduce costs.
“You are looking at every process in the plant,” explains Martin. “Through analytical testing, such as jar testing, we’ve had scenarios where a plant can end up reducing their chemical dose to optimize performance – leading to cost savings.”
Utility staff also have the ability to network with the staff of other subscribing utilities. This provides the opportunity to learn and discuss what works and what doesn’t.
Once a utility has completed a Partnership for Safe Water program and received an award, sharing that information with the public can be very beneficial, says Schippert, the Partnership senior coordinator.
“Utilities now have an award from six major water organizations to back them up,” Schippert explains. “It helps maintain a level of credibility with the public.”
Utilities are promoting their involvement with the Partnership through AWWA Sections in North America, on social media, in consumer confidence reports, and on their websites.
Improving their reputation within their community is one of the reasons many utilities participate in the programs to begin with.
“The utilities in our programs are the utilities that want to improve their performance and deliver better water, but also want to take advantage of the fact that being in our program will bring them positive press and increase consumer confidence,” says Schippert. “Our utilities tend to be the most highly engaged utilities out there that really want to improve their performance across the board.”