Covering the Territory

The Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems provides assistance small water and wastewater systems might not otherwise have at hand

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Up before dawn, Mark Court climbs into his Kia Optima sedan and heads west on I-25. His destination: Jackson, Wyo., nearly 400 miles from home. His mission: visit with a small community water system and help them deal with a plant operations or water supply issue.

 

He’ll stay in the area all week, visiting and helping other systems overcome operational problems, find funding sources, train for certification, and improve relationships with regulatory agencies and local governments.

 

“The Kia gets great gas mileage,” says Court, wastewater specialist. That’s good, because as one of three circuit riders for the Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems (WARWS), he delivers training and technical assistance to some 550 small water and wastewater systems across 97,000 square miles of the state. “I can put on close to 40,000 miles a year,” he says.

 

Affiliated with the National Rural Water Association, WARWS is based in Glenrock, near Casper. It’s in its 21st year, according to executive director Mark Pepper, and is funded by association dues, fee-based training, and federal grants through the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utility Service. Like other rural water associations across the country, WARWS provides services at no charge to clients.

 

Pushing compliance

“We’re charged with providing training and technical assistance, but also advocating compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act,” Pepper says. “Our activities include conducting two major training conferences a year and providing accounting services and information through our magazine and our website.”

 

In addition to its circuit riders, the staff includes training specialist Kathy Weinsaft and two source water protection specialists: Miles Edwards, funded through the EPA, and Dan Chamberlain, funded through the USDA Farm Services Administration.

 

“Our source water specialists work with local constituents to develop source water protection programs for their system or a surrounding area including their system,” Pepper says. “This includes on-site technical assistance as well as planning and training elements. Plus, we maintain a Power Smoker (Hurco Technologies) and a small Gen-Eye push camera (General Pipe Cleaners), so we can actually help some of our customers with small smoke-testing or video projects where needed.”

 

WARWS does not compete with private contractors for those services, but has the equipment on hand for emergencies or for small systems that can’t afford to hire out projects.

 

For all it does, the circuit rider program is perhaps most visible to Wyoming’s small and widely dispersed systems because it allows them to meet face-to-face to discuss issues and develop solutions. “We have two water specialists (Jim Van Dorn and Ross Jorgen-sen), and one wastewater specialist (Court),” says Pepper. “They travel the state all year, meeting with every system at least once a year. This is a headwaters state in an arid climate. Most of our systems rely on groundwater. Landfills and septic systems often represent threats to water quality.”

 

Small-system operator Charlie Stickney of Thermopolis says the WARWS circuit riders “do a fantastic job for us. If we have a problem, they’re up here that day or the next. No matter what the issue is, they’re knowledgeable.”

 

Solving problems

WARWS helps facilitate communications and resolve management issues. In late 2010, circuit rider Jorgensen was instrumental in setting up a brainstorming session to investigate solutions to a radionuclide problem at a small water system near Gillette.

 

Realizing that the recent WARWS conference in Gillette had attracted all the area’s engineering consultants, technology suppliers, as well as local, state, and federal governmental agencies, he invited representatives of all groups to a post-conference meeting at the county building to focus on possible solutions.

 

“We had 25 to 30 people around the table, and we discussed the issue for over two-and-a-half hours,” he reports. “Had the water system operators tried to get this much advice and input through normal channels, it would have taken weeks, maybe months, and it could have been quite costly.”

 

Attendees included EPA officials (Wyoming chooses not to have primacy over its water but leaves it to EPA to administer), representatives from the USDA Rural Development Administration and the county engineering department, even two individuals running for county commissioner. “We explored potential funding and discussed the pros and cons of various treatment methods,” says Jorgensen.

 

Duaine Faucett of Waterguy, the contract operator for the system, said the meeting was “great,” and has led to a potentially positive outcome. “We are taking bids to camera the well, log it and take samples to see where the contamination is coming from,” he says. “It’s 2,000 feet deep. We’ve also sampled other wells in the immediate area.”

 

Faucett’s company operates more than 60 small systems, including the one in question, which has only 43 taps. “These small systems can’t afford to pay for this level of technical assistance,” he says. “I call on these guys (WARWS) all the time.”

 

Emergency response

Sometimes the WARWS circuit riders must take on plant operations themselves. One recent case involved two small adjacent communities where the plant staff from one town ran both water treatment facilities. When both communities were hit with major flooding, the staff could only protect the home plant. The other, a pressure sand filtration operation, was left unstaffed and became contaminated. The community had to issue a lengthy boil order.

 

WARWS literally came to the rescue. Jorgensen worked 16 hours a day with the community and its leadership to get lines and tanks disinfected and to restore a chlorine residual to the system. “They had NTUs as high as 60 (permit is one NTU), and weren’t sure what to do,” Jorgensen says. “We helped them get the plant settled down.”

 

Another treatment system ran into trouble when finished-water NTUs rocketed to 60 in the spring, when the plant draws its source water from irrigation ditches. WARWS’s Van Dorn was on the scene quickly. “The operator was new, and we helped turn up the filtration rate and keep up with demand,” he says. “We’ll meet with anybody. When they call, we respond. We tell them they don’t want to get dinged (cited for a violation) on this.”

 

The solids side

A major challenge for many communities is sludge and sludge lagoons, which nearly all wastewater treatment systems in Wyoming use. There are few mechanical systems, since only eight of the state’s municipalities have more than 10,000 residents.

 

“Biosolids monitoring is the key to good operations and compliance,” says Court. “When the weather’s good, I’m out in the boat checking sludge depth.” Using a special spreadsheet that calculates such factors as population growth, sludge inventory, and removal costs, he counsels operators on the relationship between solids buildup and effluent quality.

 

“Too much sludge can result in BOD and TSS excursions and algae buildup, including blue-green algae, which is toxic to the environment,” Court says. “Plants need to keep their sludge inventory under control.”

 

Court also encourages biosolids reuse. “I’m opposed to simply landfilling biosolids,” he says. “The nutrient value of biosolids is higher than that of animal waste. We try to get our clients to land-apply the material. In this dry climate, it can change soil chemistry and help restore vegetation.”

 

Dispute resolution

A dispute over chlorination drew the WARWS team to help another small system. “City officials wanted the operator to continue an old practice of buying bleach for disinfection, instead of using chlorine,” Van Dorn recalls. WARWS worked with the community and the operator to make sure the system stayed in compliance and used proper disinfection methods.

 

In another case, Van Dorn helped a community access rural development funds for an infrastructure project, patching up botched communications among the various parties involved and securing funding. “That’s my biggest cup of tea,” says Van Dorn, “dealing with management and communication issues.”

 

The Wyoming circuit riders do a lot of training as well, and help systems with emergency and O&M plans. Charlie Stickney of Thermopolis appreciates all the WARWS initiatives. “They train us to be better operators, to do our job better,” he says. “They help us get certified and move up to higher levels of certification. That’s how I use them.”

 

Stickney says WARWS also helped him develop an emergency plan, which came into play when a water main broke under a highway. “We put the plan into practice and avoided washing out the whole road,” he says.

 

He also credits WARWS for helping water boards and town councils understand the treatment system and how to manage it more efficiently, and for helping small systems secure funding for projects like the new water tank his system is planning to build. “I operate a small district,” Stickney says. “If I run into a problem I can’t solve, I call them. They help me solve it.”

 

The satisfaction is mutual. “I feel good at the end of the day,” says Van Dorn, who used to operate a large wellfield himself and now enjoys the freedom from the bureaucracy.

 

Jorgensen puts it this way: “A system I visited this week has a new operator learning the operation of his plant. He mentioned that he needed to calibrate the turbidimeters, but instead of calibrating, a simple cleaning provided a much lower and accurate NTU reading. To me, this was simple maintenance, but to the operator it was a significant technical assistance visit. He is more confident that the filters are producing good, clean water.”

 

What may seem routine to the WARWS team means much more to the operators, clerks and water boards around the state, Court believes. “Too often we may never know,” he says, “but I believe this is why we are out there — catching the little things before they become big.”



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