ICYMI: Rural Water Rally 2019

Congressman Sanford Bishop (GA)

Washington, DC – Days leading up to this year’s Rally were filled with uncertainty with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history that lasted 35 days. A week before Rally was to kick-off, agreements were reached, and the government was back in business.

Despite the questionability of government activity, states scheduled appointments with elected officials and gathered information to deliver this year’s Rural Water priorities.

NRWA kicked off the 2019 Rural Water Rally on February 5 with almost 400 rural water and wastewater professionals from across the country in attendance with a welcome from NRWA President Kent Watson of Texas.

Anne Hazlett, Special Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development

Featured speakers Congressman Sanford Bishop from Georgia and both thanked attendees for the important work they undertake every day to provide clean, affordable drinking water for communities everywhere in the nation.

“You are here in our Nation’s capital to remind senators and congressman that because of you, we have a Strong America,” stated Bishop. “We can rest assure that our drinking water is safe and that are most precious resource, water, is protected.”

Bishop went into detail about his experiences with rural water and its emergency response to 2018 Tropical Storm Alberto and most recently to Hurricane Michael. He thanked Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and his own state of Georgia for coming to the aid of his Congressional district in Southwest Georgia during this devastation.

“Team work is common practice for Rural Water and that’s how you do,” exclaimed Bishop, “You are where the rubber meets the road. Thank you!”

Congressman Bishop is the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, food and drug administration and has urged the continual support of rural water programs because “they are vital to a better, safer quality of life.”

Hazlett followed Bishop echoing his words that Rural Water plays a vital role in the improvement of in our small communities and rural areas. She detailed stories from her road trip where she visited 42 states in the last 18 months.

She pointed to a Superbowl commercial by Kia and how the highlighted town benefitted from USDA funding for a new water treatment plant.  Hazlett connected that with the new infrastructure to ensure clean, affordable water brings economic development.

“We see our role as being a partner to local leaders to build strong and healthy communities. Rural Development’s core mission is to increase rural prosperity,” explained Hazlett. “To accomplish that mission, we focus on improving the quality of life and fostering economic opportunity through infrastructure, partnerships and innovation.”

NRWA President Kent Watson presenting Congressman Mike Conaway (TX) with NRWA Rising Star Award

Hazlett praised Rural Water for its work with USDA and tackling challenges together to strengthen Rural America.

Other speakers during Opening Session included NRWA Vice President and Legislative Committee Chair John O’Connell, III of New York and NRWA D.C. staff Bill Simpson, Mike Keegan, Keith Heard and Michael Preston.

After Opening Session concluded, Rally attendees began making the march to the Hill to attend meetings with elected officials. These meetings continued throughout the week and will help Rural Water continue its support of providing access to affordable and safe public water and effective wastewater maintenance.

Consolidation is a real option for many small systems–if it’s their decision

This blog post, by NRWA Deputy CEO Matt Holmes, was part of an announcement on the Guiding Principles and Briefing Paper for the Strengthening of Utilities through Consolidation by US Water Alliance on February 25, 2019.

Last summer, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a dialogue examining Utility Strengthening Through Consolidation. The US Water Alliance brought together industry leaders for an important discussion in a historic setting at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge outside of San Francisco, California.

I’ve written before that it’s a difficult time to be responsible for managing a small water system. A combination of high-profile events and the public’s immediate access to information (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) has put a spotlight on longstanding challenges. The rhetoric tends to hit small communities the hardest. After all, they represent the largest percentage in the overall number of community water systems. Language like fractured, siloed, struggling, unsustainable, and distressed is an unproductive way to approach the issues we all need to tackle. In the past, some advocates have portrayed small and rural systems as dangerous violators that need to be assisted by larger utilities to survive.

Identifying anyone as “the problem” is counterproductive. Any narrative that says “everyone like this is bad, everyone like this is good” creates more separation. Ostracizing communities based on size, economics, or disadvantaged status is against the stated intentions of many advocates for consolidation as a solution. In order to be successful, utility consolidation must be about creating unity. All parties need an equal place at the table if we want to make durable, forward thinking solutions.

Two small water system managers attended the dialogue and conveyed their views. Clarence Aragon manages the Mora Mutual Water and Sewer Works Association in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Mora is an unincorporated community, partially served by Clarence’s system through 375 connections. The area has long been considered economically distressed . It also has a proud history of Hispanic settlement since 1835 and is the county seat. Clarence related his experience with consolidation over the past decade, as Mora has grappled with the costs, benefits, and consequences of a more regional approach.

“The responsibility of complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act rests here,” Clarence explained as the manager and sole operator. “No excuses. What is missed sometimes in these conversations is the complexity in these small systems – treatment technology, overlapping regulatory requirements, economics, and political reality.” Clarence’s perspective on the challenges facing small systems is far-reaching and impossible to relate in a short article. I believe the other water sector leaders really heard and acknowledged his contribution to the dialogue. Clarence drove home the point that small systems serve the communities they and their families live in. They are the most invested in solving the challenges they face; and any solution must have this local support.

Bud Gillin also attended the dialogue as the manager of water and sewer operations for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, located on the beautiful Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Bud brought a different perspective on the importance of local determination through tribal sovereignty. He underscored how water management is culturally important to many small and rural communities. For the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, these ways of life have been developed over generations of observation, experimentation, and spiritual interaction with the natural world.

Bud pointed out that large and small systems have very different problems. “The national news has highlighted systems that serve many more thousands of people than our rural systems,” Bud said. “Their focus should be on solving big-picture problems that require millions of dollars to fix. They in turn should allow the professionals like Clarence and myself the opportunity to obtain funding in an affordable scenario geared to our ability to repay for our rural systems. Together, large and small, we can solve all the clean water issues.”

The main thing I learned from the leadership dialogue was that many of the players expected the three of us to be uniformly opposed to consolidation. On the contrary, I believe today’s water utility professionals are open to considering consolidation if they feel it will benefit their customers. Our main goal in participating in the dialogue was to convey that local decision-makers are in the best position to determine what is best for their communities – a sentiment firmly conveyed in the Alliance’s latest report, Utility Consolidation: Briefing Paper. Many State and National Rural Water Association members serve as national models in creating mutually beneficial partnerships. All options should be on the table, including consolidation.

The value of these discussions is bringing people together to understand each other’s viewpoints and create conversations that otherwise would not take place. With the pendulum swinging right now towards highlighting differences, I’m grateful to the US Water Alliance in providing leadership that brings the industry closer together in pursuit of real solutions. America – large and small, rural and urban – is not fractured. Just look at the response in Florida to Hurricane Michael for the most recent example of utilities helping utilities. Rural Water will continue to embrace practical solutions in a responsible manner, while striving to be the best.

The Fabric of America

According to the US EPA, there are 50,067 community water supply systems (CWS) in the nation. Over half or 55% of these systems serve populations of 500 or less. Sustainability is a concern of regulators, legislators and interested parties and it continues to be a leading policy issue on the forefront of local governing boards, councils and the citizens they serve. However, there is no direct evidence from EPA or other reputable sources that provides a direct correlation between size of the system and sustainability.

Sustainability must first be assessed through a list of system-specific criteria such as complexity of treatment, quality of its source water, infrastructure conditions and the local economic environment. Many small systems have a high-quality source water that requires minimal equipment and treatment. These systems are small and, without question, can be labeled sustainable depending on the infrastructure and economic conditions of their customers.

The majority of small CWSs are governed by individuals that are duly elected by the residents of the municipality or customers of the district. The officials, managers and operations specialists and their families drink the water that is produced. These individuals take their duties and service to their communities extremely serious. They make sustainability decisions every day in operations, management and governance including consolidations. EPA inventory data documents these local decisions with a reduction of 3,997 systems the last 18 years.

This reduction supports a previous NRWA Sustainability Institute survey which documented that 67% of non-municipal entities, such as districts and co-ops, either receive or provide services to other entities. Likewise, 47% of municipals and 25% of privately-owned entities responding provide or receive services from other entities.

Recognizing that the fabric of our nation is comprised of small communities and understanding their value to our economy and quality of life will lead to a different view in addressing rural issues. The recognition of small systems and their value will lead to finding ways to mend that fabric as opposed to eliminating or tearing it apart.

North Carolina Rural Water Assists Community Locating Leaks, Saving Thousands of Dollars

TRYON, N. C. – A pair of leaks strained the capacity of the Tryon, N. C. water treatment plant, but assistance from the North Carolina Rural Water Association helped locate the leaks and save thousands of gallons of lost water.

“We had significant leaks,” said Greg McCool, Water Treatment Superintendent for the Town of Tryon. “The treatment plant was running an extra two hours a day just to keep up.”

Tryon was losing an estimated 150,000 gallons of water per day.

McCool called Keith Buff, a Circuit Rider with the North Carolina Rural Water Association. Circuit Riders are roving water experts that provide technical assistance to rural water utilities. In many cases, they have experience and equipment that is difficult to acquire at small communities.

“They had surveyed the entire system visually, but couldn’t find the leak,” Buff said.

Their visual search was complicated by the heavy amount of rain in North Carolina.

“In some places, they’ve received nearly 100 inches of rain this year,” Buff said. “It makes it difficult to detect leaks visually when the creeks are running dirty.”

Buff used NCRWA acoustic leak detection equipment to start surveying the distribution system.

“He found a small leak right off the bat,” McCool said.

The second, larger leak was more difficult to locate. Buff used special correlation equipment to narrow down the location of the leak.

“Every material has a known speed of sound,” Buff explained. “The correlators use two accelerometers to listen to the noise of the leak. It has algorithms built in that compute the difference in sound with the speed of the material to determine a location.”

Buff then used listening equipment to narrow the leak to a six-inch main.

“The leak was spraying directly into a culvert that drained directly into a creek,” he said.

Once the leaks were repaired, the treatment plant’s run times returned to normal. His assistance saved the town an estimated 150,000 gallons of water per day and roughly $2,700 per week.

“I always call Keith and he’s good to come out and help,” McCool said. “Rural Water is always a big help to the Town of Tryon.”

Oklahoma Town Wins Best Tasting Water in the Nation

Washington, D.C. – Tahlequah Public Works Authority, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, claims the 2019 title of America’s best tasting drinking water at the 20th Anniversary of the Great American Water Taste Test, held on February 6, 2019 in Washington, D.C. as part of the Rural Water Rally.

City of Clay Center of Nebraska won the Silver Medal with Douglas County Utilities, Montana System of Minden, Nevada receiving the Bronze Medal. Rounding out the top five were Rathbun Regional Water Association, Inc. of Centerville, Iowa and City of Sumas of Washington.

These five water systems competed against 42 total entries from across the country. State rural water associations hold their own taste test finals and send the winners to compete at the Great American Water Taste test.

These finalists are selected in a preliminary round, with the finals judged by a panel of experts. The honorary judging panel this year included Paul Balzano, Professional Staff, House Committee on Agriculture; Michael Pawlowski, Chief of Staff, Senator Lisa Murkowski, (AK); Edna Primrose, Assistant Administrator, Rural Development, Office of Water & Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Jean Kabre, Burkina Faso Rural Drinking Water Financier.

Judges rated each water sample based on its clarity, bouquet and taste. Pawlowski thanked the rural water operators and state associations attending the finals for everything they do everyday to provide America with safe, quality drinking water.

Bill Sims, Oklahoma Rural Water Association President, accepted the award on behalf of Gold Medal Winner. Tahlequah Public Works Authority started in 1970 and serves 7,500 connections in its community in Oklahoma.

Utah Rural Water Assists Community with High-Pressure Leaks

DUCHESNE, Utah – Jeff Schnar stood at the base of the mountain where a pair of leaks and 310 psi water pressure had knocked out service for 168 customers of the South Duchesne Culinary Water System in Duchesne, Utah. Assistance from the Rural Water Association of Utah helped protect the public health, repair the leaks and restore service.

“He called and mentioned he had a leak on his system,” explained Jake Wood, a Circuit Rider with RWAU. “The utility had been without water for about 24 hours.”

Circuit Riders are roving water experts that provide training and technical assistance to small utilities. They are prized for their expertise and for their dedication. Even though the federal agencies that help fund the Circuit Riders were furloughed by the government shutdown, Wood was on-site to assist the next day.

“I called Jake that night, and he left immediately so he could be on-site the next day at 7 a.m.,” said Schnar, the Manager and Water System Operations Specialist for the South Duchesne Culinary Water System.

The next day, Schnar and Wood began working to repair the leak. The extreme elevation difference in the distribution system created high pressures that complicated the repairs. Schnar shut off the sources to help alleviate the pressure. They also called a contractor to help excavate the leak, because the mains were buried ten feet deep and the leak had saturated the area.

“In the meantime, I got them the documents to issue a boil water advisory,” Wood said.

He also helped issue the boil water advisory and coordinate alternate water supplies for the community.

“We collected bottled water in case customer were in need,” Wood said. “They were also hauling in water with tankers. It’s required that you test for a chlorine residual and document each load, so I made sure they had a procedure to properly test and document.”

Once the leak was excavated, Wood assisted with the repairs.

“There was water spraying, but Jake isn’t afraid to get wet,” Schnar said. “He was down in the hole just like me or my crew.”

Once the leaks were repaired, crews began restoring water pressure and flushing fire hydrants to clear the mains of any contaminants. They then took five bacteriological samples to ensure the system was safe before lifting the boil water advisory.

“Rural Water is such a benefit,” Schnar said. “Everything they do really helps my system, and Jake really goes above and beyond.”

Rural Water Helps Community with Testing, Gets Water Well Back On-Line

Gordon Meyer reviews sampling procedures with Joe Christmas.

MILROY, Ind. – The Anderson Township Regional Sewer District needed two clear tests before they could put a recently-cleaned water well back into service, except the test result showed signs of fecal coliform bacteria. Assistance from the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water helped disinfect the well and bring it back on-line.

“They just had a well cleaned and they need two consecutive clear Bac-T tests before they could put it back on-line,” explained Gordon Meyer, an Alliance Circuit Rider who provides training and technical assistance to small communities.

The community had tested the well but, the results came back showing the presence of bacteria. Meyer advised Water Superintendent Joe Christmas to super chlorinate the well and allowing it to sit for 24 hours. Once the excess chlorine was flushed from the well, the community could sample and test again. Christmas followed the procedure, but the test again showed signs of bacteria.

Meyer visited the system and started evaluating the well and the community’s testing procedures. He learned that the well had been left uncapped after the cleaning, and the well may have been contaminated.

“I supervised while a contracted mixed another solution to super chlorinate the well and properly replaced the well cap,” Meyer said.

The chlorine solution would need to be in contact with the well for at least 24 hours to be effective. Meyer and Christmas reviewed Anderson’s sampling procedures to ensure they were getting accurate results from their tests.

“I asked if he had sprayed the sampling tap with chlorine and how long he let the water run before taking a sample,” Meyer explained. “We sprayed the sampling tap and I advised Joe to let the water run for a few minutes before taking a sample.”

Anderson Township utility.

Disinfecting the sampling tap ensures that no outside bacteria have contaminated the sample. Letting the water run helps ensure that the sample is coming from the well and not water that may be left in the line prior to the disinfection process.

“After 24 hours, they tested and this time it came back negative for fecal coliform,” Meyer said. “I told them to wait 24 hours and sample again.”

After the second test came back clear, Anderson Township was able to put the second well back on-line. Meyer has remained in contact with the system.

“They have two wells that require different levels of chlorination,” Meyer said. “Right know they are trying to balance each well, but everything else it is going good.”

Mississippi Rural Water Assists Community After Flood

SHUQUALAK, Miss. – “Let me get my boots on, I’ll be right there,” Tom Abernathy said when the Shuqualak Butler Water Association called him on the Saturday a flood destroyed one of their water lines.

“We had a seven-inch rain and the flood that came washed out a creek crossing,” said Tom Hindman, the Shuqualak Butler Water Operations Specialist. “It left about 200 homes without water.”

Shuqualak Butler has an emergency connection with a neighboring water utility, but the same flood damaged part of their distribution system and could not supply enough emergency water. The damaged main was leaking over 200 gallons per minute. Hindman thought the break was in the creek, but needed assistance locating it. That’s when he contacted Abernathy for assistance.

Exposed water line ready for repair.

“It was a Saturday and I was on vacation, but I told him I’d be there in a couple of hours,” Abernathy said. He is a Circuit Rider with the Mississippi Rural Water Association.

Circuit Riders are roving water professionals that provide technical assistance to water systems. Abernathy has over 30 years of experience in the water and wastewater industry, including 20 managing the utility operations of a small community.

When Abernathy was on-site, he began working to locate the leak.

“We found the leak, but the water was still to high,” Hindman said.

Abernathy devised a plan to install valves that would allow Shuqualak Butler to isolate the leak and restore service to some of the impacted homes.

“Tom stayed late into the night helping us,” Hindman said. “We were able to put in some valves and run some crossovers to get water back to our customers.”

Abernathy returned the next day to help locate and repair the leak.

“Tom was really a lot of assistance,” Hindman said. “We’ve worked with Mississippi Rural Water before and that’s just the way they are.”

MRWA Assistance Helps Community Repair Seemingly Impossible Leak Under Lake

ELYSIAN, Minn. – Ron Greenwald stood on the lake shore in Elysian, Minn., trying to find a way to repair a leak under eight feet of water. Assistance from the Minnesota Rural Water Association helped run a temporary service line and locate critical pipes so that Elysian could repair the leak at considerable savings.

“We had a substantial leak that was causing a loss of pressure,” said Greenwald, the Elysian Water Superintendent. “We knew it was in an eight-inch line under the lake that fed a subdivision.”

Elysian workers took a boat onto the lake to try to spot any sign of pressurized water under the surface. They found water bubbling to the surface over 60 yards from shore. That’s when they contacted Minnesota Rural Water for assistance.

“They asked if I had equipment that could locate a leak under a lake,” said Jeff Dale, an MRWA Circuit Rider. Circuit Riders are roving water experts that provide technical assistance to communities in their area. “Unfortunately, the pipe was HDPE, which doesn’t conduct sound. There’s not many ways to locate a leak under eight feet of water.”

Elysian planned to run a temporary water service line that would supply the subdivision water while the city laid a new water main to the peninsula.

“There’s no easy way to repair a broken pipe under eight feet of water,” Dale said.

While the city consulted with a engineers and contractors about the temporary service line, Dale assisted crews by locating where the water line entered the lake and emerged again on the peninsula. Dale’s line locating equipment found where the main entered the peninsula and revealed that there was no valve that could be used to isolate the broken line. The city had a contractor install a new valve to close both ends of the broken line.

Once the valve was installed, Elysian had a plan to run an eight-inch temporary line to the peninsula.

“The original plan was to run an eight-inch line from fire hydrant to fire hydrant,” Greenwald explained.

Running the eight-inch line would cost Elysian several thousand dollars and require several weeks to acquire materials.

“It would be a week or more for the contractor to get the eight-inch pipe,” Greenwald said. “We also needed to find fittings that would join the eight-inch to the fire hydrants.”

Dale examined the plan and started calculating if Elysian needed such a large main to supply the homes on the peninsula.

“He asked us some questions about our flow and pressure and ran some calculations,” Greenwald said.

After consulting with the Operations Specialist at a nearby utility, Dale concluded that Elysian could supply the subdivision with only a two-inch temporary line.

“I did some calculations and discussed it with Dominic Jones from Red Rock Rural Water,” Dale explained. “We were confident they could adequately supply that subdivision with a two-inch line.”

Using two-inch water line would save the community thousands of dollars and speed up the repair process.

“The contractor had plenty of two-inch line in his yard, and we wouldn’t need special fittings to connect to the hydrants,” Greenwald said. “The project went from a two-week to a one-day time frame.”

Elysian laid the two-inch temporary line along a bike path and connected to the nearest fire hydrant for the subdivision. The city switched to the temporary line without a disruption in service.

“The two-inch line worked great,” Dale said. “No one noticed a change.”

“It was a great idea,” Greenwald said. “He saved us thousands of dollars.”

With the temporary line in place, Elysian began working to repair the leaking main. During the work, they located the leak at a coupling that was much closer to shore. The pressure from the water main pushed the leaking water along the line and made it appear the leak was much farther into the lake. Elysian was able to make the repair without dewatering part of the lake or running a new main.

“Jeff helped us a lot,” Greenwald said. “He’s a great asset to small communities.”

Louisiana Rural Water Locates Mystery Leak Near Hospital, Saves Community Thousands in Repair Costs

WINNFIELD, La. – When a mystery leak started intruding into a drain pipe at the Winn Parish Medical Center in Winnfield, La., the community was faced with thousands of dollars in repair costs from digging around the hospital structures. Assistance from the Louisiana Rural Water Association helped located the leak under an open area of ground and save the community thousands in repairs.

“There was a leak near one of the drains next to the hospital emergency room,” said LRWA Circuit Rider David Ryals. “They had water running out of the drain onto the street.”

Because it was intruding into a drain pipe, the leak was extremely difficult to locate. Any potential repairs were complicated by proximity of the hospital. Most of the area was paved in concrete or covered by hospital structures.

“We didn’t know where to dig,” said Eugene Jones, the Public Works Director for the City of Winnfield. “We were about to break up all the concrete.”

Ryals had a creative solution to the problem. He had an inspection camera with a long cable that would fit into the drain.

“We normally use the camera to inspect sewer lines, but it would let us see what was happening inside the drain,” Ryals explained.

He ran the camera lead into the drain. Ryals saw the water leaking into the drain at a joint roughly 20 feet from where the drain emptied. It put the leak under one of the few areas on the property not covered in concrete or under a structure.

“I’ll never forget the look on their faces,” Ryals said.

With the leak located under open ground, city crews were able to dig up and repair the leak without costly damage to the surrounding pavement and structures.

“It was incredible,” Jones said. “LRWA’s staff and equipment saved us thousands of dollars.”

“The Louisiana Rural Water Association and its staff stands committed to assisting all water and wastewater systems with any problems they may incur,” said Patrick Credeur, LRWA Executive Director.