Guest Column | August 31, 2015

WWEMA Window: Think You Have It Tough? Try Being A Small Water Utility

By Mike Dimitriou, Water Remediation Technology

I’ve worked with small utilities across the U.S. for some time, and I can tell you they are struggling. They are facing a sustainability crisis so serious, because of so many challenges and lack of resources, that many believe they will be unable to continue in the future.

At last count, the U.S. EPA identified more than 166,000 public water systems and publicly owned treatment works serving less than 10,000 connections. Small and medium-sized utilities have always faced major obstacles in their efforts to supply drinking water and treat wastewater. It’s even harder now.

The challenges they face are no different than those faced by large utilities — meeting drinking water and wastewater regulations, finding and maintaining adequate water sources, maintaining aging distribution and collection systems, an aging and disappearing workforce, etc. But small systems have one major hurdle that makes their job that much harder: lack of financial options. The costs they face in order to deal with water scarcity, meet regulations, hire skilled operators, and deal with older infrastructure often are beyond their capabilities. Simply put, many do not have the ability to pay for what they need. The costs of all the demands are significantly greater than any funds they can raise. They lack the ratepayer base and associated tax base that larger populations have, and the resources those bring. Their ratepayers simply can’t afford it.

On top of that, many of these small water utilities, which are generally groundwater systems, now face the need to treat their water. Dwindling aquifers and changes in groundwater quality, combined with increases in contaminate levels of arsenic, nitrate, radiological, and even iron and manganese, are forcing treatment on utilities that do not have the organization, funds, or ratepayer base to handle it.

Since the start of my career, I’ve worked with small utilities and tried to help them meet their water quality and water supply needs. Many are my current clients and they are struggling.  I am convinced that innovation is needed for small systems to remain viable. Innovation in technology and private investment is the answer.

As service providers, we can support these small utilities through the many innovative options we can offer. Technology is available right now to help them meet their most pressing needs.

  1. Minimize Operator and Energy Needs Cloud-based SCADA combined with integrated control and monitoring using automation and smart systems that allow for monitoring and controlling from water source to treatment to delivery and then from collection to treatment to discharge. This option will help small utilities manage their systems while decreasing manpower needs, ensure proper system operation, and lower costs.
  2. Reduce Project Delivery Costs — Fully designed and ready for operation “drop in place” or packaged treatment and pumping systems and the latest collection pipe-lining technologies can reduce the cost of project delivery. Systems can be upgraded using a more affordable approach, while improving operating costs and water quality and helping the utility meet the latest regulations.
  3. Meet New Regulations and Reduce Treatment Costs — Leap-frog technology. New treatment options are available to upgrade treatment systems and not only improve water quality but help with operating costs and manpower needs. Other new technologies allow them to use marginal water sources and still provide high-quality drinking water.
  4. Treat and Sell Water — Why not treat to a level that can be sold and earn back operating costs? The latest advanced wastewater technology can produce water that is usable by agriculture and industry. Reuse is both environmentally sound and can earn income for a utility. 
  5. Work with State Regulators — Do this on a case-by-case as well as statewide basis to streamline acceptance of technology. State regulators will listen if you can show the benefits.

Just as important, if not more so: Innovative operation and management of the system. Looking to new ways of financing their improvements as well as operations can offer help to many. These can include:

  1. Public Private Partnerships and Joint Ventures — Lack of financial resources to make improvements could be helped through private bonding and financing. Financing is available that would support many utilities that are struggling.
  2. Design-Build Project Delivery — Not only contractors but other service providers can lessen delivery costs by working with small utilities and their engineers to provide treatment and pumping equipment, monitoring and controls, and water storage tanks on a design-build basis.
  3. Contract Operations and Contract Maintenance — Service providers have an excellent record providing both operations and maintenance services under long-term contract to larger utilities. If a group of small utilities can work with a contract operator, the economies of scale may provide a significant cost savings.
  4. Leasing — Long-term leasing is a good option for many small utilities. When combined with long-term service contracts, it can be a very appealing. Many service providers and even finance organizations will do one or both.
  5. Regionalize — Establishing a regional water supply by merging a number of local small systems or joining an existing larger system can be an option. A larger ratepayer base allows for deeper pockets to fund the needed work as well as provide more operator and manager depth.

Many of these options have been done successfully by larger utilities; they are not new to them. But to small systems and many state regulators, this is new and different. If we are to keep small systems sustainable and working, we need to do things differently.

Mike Dimitriou is president of Water Remediation Technology and is a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Board of Directors.