Simple Things Done Right

Marietta Water has earned repeated First Place awards for excellence in quality and service, using ordinary tactics, executed with great finesse

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The Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) gives two major awards every year: Water Distribution System of the Year, and Wastewater Collection System of the Year.


Marietta Water won the former in 2001, 2005, and 2007, and the latter in 2008. Bob Snelson, water and sewer director, notes, “The inspectors that do these evaluations are experts in the industry, and to have them select us as best of the best is a tribute to the hard work our staff puts out each day to provide high-quality and reliable service to our customers.”


The awards are made in three categories based on number of customers: under 10,000; 10,000 to 50,000 (Marietta’s category); and over 50,000. There are 14 cities in Marietta’s category. “Typically, only six to eight cities will subject themselves to the GAWP inspections,” says water and sewer superintendent James Wells. “So we are most definitely in competition with the best of the best.”


System details

Marietta Water is responsible for drinking water distribution and wastewater treatment. Stormwater is handled by a separate department. The distribution division serves 25 square miles with 18,000 meters and a population of 67,000, overseeing 330 miles of distribution pipe, a mix of ductile iron, cast iron, concrete and PVC.


Forty percent of that pipe is less than 20 years old, 35 percent is 20 to 40 years old, 20 percent is 40 to 60 years old, and only 5 percent is older than 60 years. An inspection program is scheduled to cover about 20 percent of the system each year.


Elevations in Georgia range from sea level to 4,787 feet at Brasstown Baldy. Within the Marietta service area, elevations range from 1,000 to 1,346 feet. Service pressure requirements are met with a combination of two elevated storage tanks and three pumping stations.


All water for distribution is purchased from the Cobb County Marietta Water Authority, which draws from Lake Allatoona and the Chattahoochee River. The area has experienced drought since around 2000, but these two bodies of water have been able to meet Marietta’s system demand of 8 mgd.


Routine maintenance includes the usual repairs to water main leaks, breaks, and other reactive work orders, which generate an average of 3,400 work orders each year. Scheduled activities include exercising valves and inspection of tank and pump stations. Water mains are routinely flushed to ensure water quality. Further, all 18,000 meters are inspected at set intervals and repaired or replaced as needed. Meter maintenance and repair is critical to reducing unbilled water.


Conservation efforts

One thing GAWP considers in its evaluation is water conservation — both belowground leaks and aboveground waste. Marietta Water has a strong education and enforcement program and uses a staggered lawn irrigation schedule: Even and odd street addresses are keyed to specific days of the week.

Blatant waste, such as water gushing out of a broken sprinkler head, a hose left running, or water running off the property into the street, brings a written warning. The second offense brings a $100 fine, third offense a $500 fine, and fourth offense a $500 fine and service shut-off.


“In the first year of enforcement, some 900 warnings were sent out, with only a single case escalating to a $500 fine,” says Tim Marshall, environmental compliance coordinator. “These days, public compliance is excellent, thanks to our outreach and education programs.”


Snelson adds, “Our meter readers recognize excessive consumption when they see it, and flag that home for a follow-up visit by an inspector. If it’s an internal leak, we help them find it and there’s no fine involved. If it’s waste, they get a written warning and a follow-up inspection to ensure compliance.”

During all of 2008, only a few written warnings were issued. People increasingly understand the need for conservation. In addition to the “stick” of fines, there are plenty of “carrots” available on the Marietta Water Web site to help reduce water consumption. They include:

• Rebates for installing low-flush toilets,

• Instructions for constructing rain barrels,

• Free household water-use audits,

• Xeriscaping strategies,

• Tips for saving water in every room of the house, as well as the yard and pool.


Each year Marietta holds a Clean Water Week with the support of local media, focusing on educational outreach to schools, community groups, and customers. Overall these conservation efforts resulted in a 2 percent drop in consumption during the drought.


Infrastructure upgrades

GAWP also looks at the distribution system itself, including inspection cycles, infrastructure condition and upgrades, pumping efficiency, and maintenance and repair equipment. This is yet another area where Marietta excels.


The Capital Improvements page on Marietta Water’s Web site lists recent and near-future projects. Diligent coordination with other utilities ensures the roads are dug up only once for water-system repairs. That saves money and time and makes for happy customers.


Although GAWP conducts no customer surveys, Marietta does, and it makes the results available to the GAWP inspectors. Troy Huebner, water distribution supervisor, proudly notes, “We get good marks on those surveys. We are strongly oriented to customer service, and our people have been consistently rated as friendly, helpful, and dependable. We actually get unsolicited letters from satisfied customers.”


Marshall adds, “We really try to be community-based in our approach. When we get a call about a water leak, or a report of blatant waste, we’re on it in less than 24 hours, often in just a few hours. Our response time is something we’re justifiably proud of.”


And it seems the federal government is satisfied, too. Last year Marietta Water received a President’s Volunteer Service Award from the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. The award recognizes Marietta’s volunteer service, including work by department personnel with schools, parks, and environmental groups.


Workforce stability

“The people on our staff are really top-notch,” says Snelson. “On the management side, we’ve got about 50 man-years of experience on this job. The newest guy has been with us for eight years, the oldest for 25 years.


“And our men in the field, our operators, really know their job and how to best use our equipment assets. They are required to get full certification within one year of hire. Even with typical turnover rates, at any given time, about 85 percent are certified. We put a lot of focus on having the best people out there doing the real work.


“I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps with over 20 years service, retired from active duty in 1988. I have to say, this group of young women and men at Marietta Water are some of the best that I have ever had the privilege to work with. They deserve the accolades. We wouldn’t be getting these awards without them.”


Certification is provided by the Georgia Board of Examiners for both water and wastewater operators. Ten years ago, Marietta partnered with Chattahoochee Technical College, which has its main campus in Marietta, to provide a 10-week training course before the certification exam. The course is structured around a field-study training program developed at California State University in Sacramento.


But that’s not all. In an effort to attract more people into the business, GAWP has initiated the “H2Opportunity” program (see sidebar). Marietta Water’s own Kim Holland led the initiative as the committee chair for the GAWP. Engineers go to local high schools and colleges aiming to attract the best and brightest into the field, explaining the importance of the work, career opportunities, and the personal satisfaction that public service brings. Because of Marietta’s extensive participation, GAWP cited that program specifically in presenting the most recent System of the Year award.


Where to from here?

With the winning record already on the books, it may seem there’s little room for improvement at Marietta Water. Says Wells, “It’s not like we’re doing anything fundamentally different than other cities. We’re just doing it extremely well, and we all have a real sense of pride in our accomplishments. Our people are both talented and motivated.”


The GAWP awards are structured so that no city can win the same award two years in a row. With a win for Wastewater Collection System of the Year in 2008, Wells decided to apply for neither in 2009. Instead, Marietta Water will go for wins in both categories (water and wastewater) for 2010.


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