Roundtable 2015

2015 Roundtable Attendees

As managers and decision makers, water utility leaders must be armed with the skills to make sure their systems are running smoothly. It?s not always easy as many challenges exist. Aging infrastructure feels like a never ending battle for many cities, and drought is seemingly affecting many areas of the country. To examine some of the different ways utilities are managing their water infrastructure systems, we sat down with a group of utility leaders from across the country for our annual UIM roundtable conversation.

The directors polled in this year?s roundtable are: Dan Ferons, General Manager, Santa Margarita Water District; Jo Ann J. Macrina, Commissioner, City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management; Zella West, Manager, Nob Hill Water Association; and Rick Westerfield, Administrator, Columbus Division of Water.


What are the major issues affecting your water system (aging infrastructure, water supply, water quality, funding, etc.)? Are any challenges unique to your situation/location?

Dan Ferons, Santa Margarita Water District: Major issues include water supply, regulatory issues and funding. SMWD imports 85 percent of its total supply and 100 percent of its drinking water. The District is focused on conservation and use efficiency; recapture and recycling; and developing or participating in new sources. Recapture, recycling and storage are issues of both a regulatory and funding nature.? Regulations hamper the full realization of the value of water recycling. While supply issues generally are not unique to SMWD (particularly during the drought), what is different is that District is almost entirely dependent on imported supply for customers.

Jo Ann J. Macrina, Atlanta Department of Watershed Management: As with most major municipal water and sewer utilities, aging infrastructure, water supply, water quality and funding are all major issues affecting the DWM. For example, a $100 million annual subsidy to the department?s annual budget in the form of a 1 cent sales tax comes before voters for a four-year extension in 2016. Without support of the sales tax, nearly 25 percent of revenues will need to be replaced by another means including possibly a rate increase. To add, succession planning for an aging workforce is a major priority within Watershed Management, as the average employee age approaches 50 years old with an attrition rate more than 40 percent due to retirement alone.

Zella West, Nob Hill Water Association: Like water utilities across the country, one of our biggest issues is aging infrastructure and ensuring that our customers continue to have access to safe, cleaning drinking water. Additionally, this year we are focused, like many, on the drought conditions affecting our area. Both of these issues are taking on greater importance given the population growth we have experienced in recent years. Since 1990, our population has grown more than 50 percent. Maintaining high levels of customer service to a growing population while managing an aging infrastructure is definitely challenging. To meet this challenge, we rely on a combination of our workforce and technology.

Rick Westerfield, City of Columbus: Source water protection (algae, nitrates, other pollutants). A unique challenge is watersheds that encompass mainly agricultural land uses which are in counties not under Columbus influence. Also, a recently passed state law now allows private property owners who reside next to Columbus-owned property along the drinking water reservoirs, to come onto Columbus property without consequence and remove natural vegetation, trees, etc., to ?beautify? the property, not recognizing the city?s interests to use the buffers to protect water quality in its rivers and reservoirs. Other challenges include workforce and aging infrastructure. A comprehensive asset management program is in place and around $30 million is in current annual budget for water line replacement. This will continue to be an issue.

How does the utility receive funding?

Ferons: Water sales to SMWD?s 154,000 water and wastewater customers ? approximately 59,000 residential and commercial meters ? provide the bulk of the district?s operating revenues. In 2015, water sales are projected to provide $41.4 million of SMWD?s anticipated $57.9 million in operating expenses. Sanitation sales are projected to provide another $11.9 million. Additionally, the district anticipates collecting $38.7 million in non-operating revenues in 2015.

Macrina: The utility is funded primarily by water and sewer service fees charged to residential, commercial and wholesale customers, plus monies from a 1-cent Municipal Option Sales Tax collected from retail sales inside the Atlanta city limits. Annually, the city collects about $575 million between both revenue sources.

West: We receive our funding the old fashioned way ? our customers. We bill our customers for water service bi-monthly. We consider ourselves stewards of resources ? both the water that we deliver to our customers and the money they pay to receive that water. They expect us to deliver quality water and service, and we strive to meet or exceed that expectation every day.

Westerfield: Water and sewer rates established through city council, municipal water and sewer bonds and OWDA and State Revolving Loans.

Asset management and alternative delivery methods for water projects, such as design-build and the use of public-private partnerships (P3s), are increasingly being discussed. What new initiatives, if any, has your municipality started in these areas? What are the results?

Ferons: The SMWD is involved in two major P3s, both designed to bring new sources of potable water to our customers: SMWD is the lead agency in the environmental permitting for the Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. Cadiz Inc., a publicly traded company, holds water rights to a substantial aquifer in the Fenner Valley. SMWD anticipates receiving 5,000 acre-ft annually from the project, about 20 percent of our demand. SMWD has also signed a letter of intent to buy 5,000 acre-ft annually from Boston-based Poseidon, which proposes to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, Calif. SMWD?s non-binding letter reserves 5,000 acre-ft annually.

Macrina: The City of Atlanta is currently designing a solution for its water supply concerns that will soon give the distribution system more than 100 years of raw water reliability and more than 2.4 billion gallons of additional storage. The Water Supply Program will move the system from a three-day raw water reserve to more than 30 days, and also address reliability concerns for deteriorating transmission mains. When complete, a five-mile tunnel will connect a repurposed rock quarry with the Hemphill Water Treatment Plant, the Chattahoochee Water Treatment Plant and the Chattahoochee River intake. The DWM is implementing the Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) procurement method for this project, a method that emphasizes collaboration between the owner, the architect-engineer and the construction manager to collectively leverage the strengths of each party.

West: As a private non-profit utility, we are able to take advantage of private partnerships without the typical public limitations. We have found this flexibility very convenient and allows for cost-savings measures where applicable.?

Westerfield: We have had partnerships with the Ohio Department of Transportation, Franklin County Engineer?s office, local townships, as well as suburban communities. We have also had partnerships with developers as well. Results are very good. We have not explored design‐build since it is believed that the types of projects we have been involved in so far are best handled by design-bid-build.

Water loss is a huge concern for water utilities these days. What initiatives has your utility taken to reduce water loss and increase water use efficiency??

Ferons: SMWD has engaged a private firm, Water Systems Optimization (WSO), to investigate thoroughly the district?s system for any water loss. SMWD?s budget for the project is approximately $100,000. We estimate our water loss to be less than 4 percent.

Macrina: This utility remains at the forefront of using technology to move the operation into the future. Atlanta, along with Las Vegas and Los Angeles, recently participated in a pilot conducted by AT&T, IBM and Mueller Water Products to test a new smart energy solution to help cities save water. The solution uses Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help cities manage water and prevent leaks. The solution uses sensors and sound technology with AT&T?s LTE wireless network to detect water pressure, temperature and leaks. Through technologies like these, we can proactively respond to water main breaks and leaks more intelligently. Solutions like these are exactly what utilities of the future are aiming for.

West: We implemented the Mi.Net AMI system from Mueller Systems, which has enabled us to track water loss on a monthly basis rather than on an annual basis and this has made a significant difference.? Tracking water loss on a monthly basis tells a much different story because the loss is not being averaged over 12 months. Our summer production increases almost four times our winter time usage.? So, what we have found by tracking our water loss monthly is that our increased pumping in the summer greatly reduces our lost water for the year. This means that if we were pumping a lower, consistent volume, our lost water would be approaching 30 percent! This is a much different story than an annual loss of less than half. The Mi.Net system allows options for helping us to find that lost water.? Since we have our automatic meters, we can now implement their leak detection services with just some additional infrastructure. Another option would be to create a District Metered Area (DMA) to help isolate and identify areas of lost water. We have also been tracking our service line leaks. When we see a pattern in our system of service line failures, we schedule specific areas for replacement. The same replacement schedule is being tracked for main line replacement.

Westerfield: Linear Extended Yule Process (LEYP) model; Increase replacement schedules; District leak surveys; Reduction in the number of days to repair mains; Pilot studies on condition assessment; Implementation of various policies and procedures; Meter repair and replacement; and Pilot of AMR.

Technology is changing the way utilities manage, plan and operate their systems. How has technology changed your utility? Can you give an example?

Ferons: SMWD has continually upgraded its SCADA system, which provides real-time operating data from the District?s 100-plus water and wastewater facilities. The system also allows SMWD staff to make changes at facilities without physically driving to the location, which saves staff time and costs. In addition, the district implemented a laboratory information system which has allowed us to fully automate our lab reporting, from operators utilizing tablets to input data in the field to printing reports for submittal to regulatory agencies. The district is also invested in Water Smart, a software application that provides customers with an easy-to-understand view of their water consumption and a comparison of their use with that of other district customers.

Macrina: The DWM is currently piloting a program similar to the cloud-based big data platform used by the Thames Water to monitor the stability and efficiency of their water and wastewater systems, which serves 14 million customers. Focusing on consent decree compliance,?Atlanta?s cloud data platform uses the latest in real-time cloud data management technology and analytics to track and predict spills and overflows in the sewer system.?The combination of historical spill information and real-time flow monitoring data will be used to plan and prioritize both pipe rehab and capacity relief projects, resulting in the DWM focusing on the worst problems first.?Not only do we expect the data platform to reduce the number and severity of spills (thus reducing DWM?s regulatory fines and penalties), but most importantly the reduction of spills reduces the potential negative impacts on the environment.?The data platform will also be used to track the progress of pipe rehab and capacity relief projects, thus providing visibility into consent decree compliance and eventual closeout. Additionally, we are also entering a partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) to develop an environmental application for an in-situ bacterial sensor to identify in real-time high levels of E. coli in surface waters that indicate the presence of sewage.

West: Nob Hill prides itself on the level of personal service we are able to provide our customers. Technology ? specifically the ability to gather and analyze data ? has enabled us to improve communication with our customers and provide them with actionable information. With the Mi.Net system we can track usage and notify our customers if we spot any unusual patterns. For example, when customers turn on their yard meter accounts in the spring, we sometimes see usage every hour, which might indicate a leak in their underground sprinkler system. By letting customers know what we?re seeing, they can investigate and fix any issues they uncover, which avoids the issue of sticker shock when they receive their bill. It?s not unusual for customers to call us and say they have fixed an issue and ask if we are seeing a reduction in their water usage. And, on the customer side, even though the water is not considered ?lost,? we have found that by notifying our customers early we can potentially save over 100 million gallons a year if our customers repair the leaks that they have. It all adds up!

Westerfield: Better information of the system; Better understanding of the system; More effective and efficient with the management of our system; GIS; and better communication and customer service. As an example, we installed vehicle locating hardware on all vehicles to better manage our field operations.

Is there a single piece of technology you can point to that has significantly helped improve operations, management and/or decision making?

Ferons: The SCADA system, and the district?s investments in its upgrade, has been invaluable in helping SMWD maximize the efficiency of our system while ensuring district staffing is ?right-sized? to efficiently serve our customers. SMWD?s service connections have doubled since 1994 and yet, the district?s staff and employees have decreased in number ? from 165 employees in 1994 to just 128 employees today. As another investment in efficiency, SMWD is now introducing an in-house GIS system that will greatly aid our operations, water use efficiency and billing departments.
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Macrina: Our city has a total of four water reclamation centers. Typically, these treatment facilities utilize a static spreadsheet to model the system hydraulics. These static hydraulic spreadsheets are not linked to the city?s dynamic collection system model, which negatively impacts their ability to collectively analyze the overall wastewater system. InfoWork CS software was selected to dynamically model the system at one facility, which will be combined with the existing collection system to produce a fully integrated modeling tool for the entire city?s wastewater system. Additionally, the model will assist in providing flow data for chemical and biological process simulations for different storm scenarios that will ultimately lead to operational efficiencies for all four reclamation centers.?

West: Our AMI system has significantly improved operations. We have been able to shorten the time it takes to prepare and distribute bills, and the bills are more precise. We have been able to reduce the time it takes to bill our customers from two weeks to three-to-four days. Before we implemented the Mi.Net system, it might take our crews four-to-five days to manually read all the meters in the system.? Now we get the information in just a few hours. It gives us considerably more data than we had access to before, and we can use this data to make smarter decisions.?

The GIS component of the Mi.Net system has given us the ability to see what is happening in the system as it is happening. We?re able to prioritize schedules and routes for our crews and fix issues faster. Additionally, the GIS component allows a visual of what is happening in our water system. Recently, during a main break, we were able to see meters turning backwards due to back siphonage. The leak repair crew was sent to the site to start working on the repair and our water quality crew was sent out to shut down the meters, do cross connection inspections and visually make sure that there was no contamination. Seeing it visually displayed on a map makes all the difference and helps us protect the water system.?

Westerfield: Our Linear Extended Yule Process (LEYP) model provided a holistic approach to our capital replacement of water mains. It uses statistical analysis of many factors to determine where best to spend our capital funds on replacement.

How are EPA mandates impacting your city/utility? Do any specific mandates affect your city? How are increased expenses, if any, being addressed?

Ferons: The recent publication of the Final Rule concerning the Waters of the United States regulations may have an impact on the district?s program for expansion of recharge in the San Juan Basin, the final rule did included several exemptions that are beneficial to public agencies with reduction in liability, potential permitting costs, and operating cost. However, the Final Rule does not plainly exempt all storm drain systems or provide exemptions for some types of water supply infrastructure.?The Final Rule significantly expands the types of waters that will be covered by the Clean Water Act which may ultimately increase project costs without a clear benefit.

Macrina: The EPA imposed two consent decrees on Atlanta in the late 1990s, separate mandates for combined sewers and sanitary sewers. The City of Atlanta was issued the initial consent decree in 1998 to correct issues with combined sewer overflows. Through separation of stormwater and wastewater pipes in downtown areas and a series of tunnels and facilities constructed to increase flow capacity, the mandate was fulfilled in 2008.

The second consent decree pertains to the sanitary sewer system was mandated in 1999 with a deadline of 2014. Mayor Reed and the DWM demonstrated that the myopic focus on the collection system only and $3.5 billion debt to address both consent decrees placed a heavy burden on Atlanta?s 1.2 million customers who pay the highest water and sewer rates in the United States, leaving the rest of the city?s water and sewer assets behind. Two years ago, in an answer to Mayor Reed?s request, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash, who said the City of Atlanta had made ?remarkable progress? in improving the system, the second consent decree was extended to July 2027. This time extension has allowed DWM to allocate financial and human resources across all assets to maintain asset value as good public stewardship requires.

Westerfield: Many treatment plant upgrades are required to address issues ? for example, disinfection byproducts rule, increased contaminant monitoring, hazardous algal bloom rule, nitrate rule. Increased expenses are handled regularly through water and sewer rate increases.

What about your utility are you most proud of and what advice would you give to your successor regarding water system management?

Ferons: I am most proud of our team?s efficiency and innovative spirit. In terms of efficiency, while customers of the district have almost doubled in the last 10 years, our staffing has remained virtually the same due to timely introduction of technology and other efficiency initiatives. Our bias for innovation has led us to develop major projects in the area of urban and storm run-off recapture, recycle and reuse. Additionally, we continue to actively seek investments in new supplies such as Cadiz and Poseidon.

Macrina: I am most proud of the dedicated and hardworking staff of the DWM. We are a people business in a business essential to all people ? water. In the worst of conditions and in any hour day or night, our workforce is tirelessly serving. Our work is, for the most part, hidden from view and taken for granted yet we provide the greatest impact to public health, ensure economic growth and add immeasurable value to quality of life. Take good care of the wonderful individuals who devote the entire careers to the management of our water systems. And, take good care of our water systems that require the right people in the right place, prudent fiscal allocation, timely maintenance, responsible capital investment and calm during a storm.

West: I?m most proud of our entire team ? in the office and in the field. As a small water utility, we try to do as much of the work in house as we possibly can. This allows our workforce to be cross-trained in many different aspects of the water system and keeps them actively engaged. Customer focus is just part of their DNA. I?m proud of the way they have embraced technology. You read stories about jobs being replaced by technology. We take a different approach; our team uses technology to improve the way they do their jobs. They have a much greater appreciation for data and they are constantly looking for ways to get even more data out of the system. We encourage them to explore options, and as a result, they keep pushing the envelope in terms of what can be done with the technology. They provide a balance between technology and workforce.

My advice to my successor would be to continue to train and grow your employees to embrace technology, not fear it. We are able to do more today in terms of water management than we could even a few years ago because of technology. Understand the data. Technology helps quantify assumptions and frees employees to do other vital services on the water system. Employees and technology ? the backbone of the water system of the future.

Westerfield: Both our water and sewer divisions have won awards from national organizations on being the leaders in the water and sewer industry. Our master plans provide guidance into the middle of the century and beyond for operations and capital programs. One of those plans is The Sustaining Scioto project, which looks at climate change impacts to the end of the century and identifies adaptive management strategies. Our asset management programs are comprehensive. Advice for my successor would be to identify services that our customers need but don?t know they need, develop plans around those needs using asset management principles, keep master plans updated since capital improvements in the water sector take many years of consensus building and implementation, and stay ahead of regulations so that the community is well postured to continue to provide quality drinking water.

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