Little Town, Big Performance

The Etowah Water & Sewer Authority serves a small community, but delivers big results in water treatment and reclamation.

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The Etowah Water & Sewer Authority enjoys the luxury of “first draw” on the Etowah River. And how the agency handles its responsibility for water stewardship has a lot to do with recent recognition.

 

In 2008, Etowah Water won the Collections System of the Year Award from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) for outstanding performance among systems with fewer than 10,000 customers.

 

In the same year, Richard Ray, operator at the authority’s Dawson Forest Water Reclamation Facility, received the GAWP Top Operations Award for outstanding and innovative performance in wastewater treatment. In 2010, Etowah Water won the GAWP Public Education Award.

 

The Etowah Water collection system is relatively new, but the staff still maintains it rigorously, with proactive inspections, up-grades, GIS-based asset management, and hydraulic modeling, all aimed at keeping the infrastructure functioning properly.

 

Like a family

Brooke Anderson, general manager of Etowah Water, observes, “People shouldn’t confuse size with quality. We’ve got a tight workflow and a proactive attitude. Being a small organization, we function more as a family with lots of collaboration.”

 

That small family nonetheless brings many years of experience to the task. “Our crews have, on average, five to six years experience,” says Kenneth Pearson, operations superintendent. “Our managers have 10 to 20 years. We’ve got a low turnover rate and a very loyal and committed group of people here.”

 

Etowah Water serves Dawson County, Ga., on the north-central border between Georgia and Tennessee. Its headquarters is in Dawsonville, the county seat, about 40 miles north of Atlanta.

 

Much of the authority’s infrastructure is less than 15 years old, so there isn’t much excavation and pipe repair in the day-to-day routine. The 22 miles of pipes are durable PVC, except for a few miles of ductile iron. Because the system is new, Etowah Water focuses on pro-active upgrades and inspections.

 

A recent big-ticket upgrade was a new influent lift station installed in 2009 at the Dawson Forest plant. It handles an average of 1 mgd but is sized to accommodate up to 2.5 mgd. “We’re not a high growth area, especially with the current economy,” says Anderson. “But we are growing, so we’re looking down the road to ensure sufficient system capacity.” At present, most growth is commercial, in the form of restaurants and light industry. The single largest customer is a major outlet mall.

 

Typical soils are sandy loam and some clay, with a water table averaging 10 feet. I&I is minimal at present, but with average annual rainfall of 52 inches, it could become a problem in the future. That’s where a rigorous inspection program pays off.

 

Proactive investigation

Early on, Etowah Water put in place a GPS-based GIS using ESRI software for asset management. Each of the system’s 500 manholes are inspected twice yearly, and the spray fields at the treatment plant are inspected daily. “The treatment plant is the core of our infrastructure, and we have staff on site 24/7 to ensure that it’s functioning,” says Dolly Pendley, plant superintendent.

 

Pearson adds, “You can never be too safe in the wastewater business. We’re always looking for ways to make our inspection programs more stringent. We’ve recently found the time and resources to go to daily inspections of our 13 lift stations. We perform any preventive maintenance as needed.”

 

Says Anderson, “Our GIS really helps out here. We’ve developed a hydraulic model of our entire system. This helps us predict weak points and proactively maintain full system integrity.”

 

Another crucial part of the inspection program is the fats, oils, and grease (FOG) compliance cycle. Restaurants comprise half the wastewater load, and Etowah Water conducts grease trap inspections quarterly. Compliance has been excellent.

 

“We’ve needed to manage our resources in spite of this bad economy, but we will never compromise when it comes to inspection and maintenance,” says Anderson. “Sure, we’ve had to tighten our belts a bit, but there have been no layoffs or hour cutbacks. And that keeps our staff happy. It motivates them to do their jobs well.”

 

Where to from here?

EWSA never rests on its laurels. The authority continues to seek ways to do the job better. One target for improvement is the work order system. “We need to make the whole process of phone call to work order to fix much easier and quicker,” says Pearson. “What we’ve got now is OK, but I know we can do better. We’re looking to streamline the process by linking our databases and automating many of those steps. When a phone call comes in, I don’t think shooting for a same-day fix is at all unrealistic.”

 

Much of the fieldwork is farmed out to Townley Construction, a local contractor available 24/7. It has been more effective to contract with Townley, with its full complement of excavators, vacuum trucks, and inspection vans, than to budget for in-house equipment.

 

Still, Etowah Water is looking at bringing a few more jobs inside. “We’re now developing some of our own in-house equipment for routine maintenance and other small jobs,” says Anderson. “Nothing major, but we think we can save some money and improve response time by allocating some funds for minor equipment. I’m talking about things like tools and safety equipment for service line repairs and routine manhole maintenance, and maybe a small portable camera system.”

 

Stressing education

Etowah Water is committed to education. Both Pendley and Pearson regularly attend conferences sponsored by GAWP, as well as academic and public forums and vendor training sessions. “Knowledge is power,” says Pendley. “If you as a manager can’t make the time to keep learning, that’s a bad example for the staff. And in this field, there’s always more to learn.”

 

The 2010 GAWP Public Education Award recognized Etowah Water for its Award Notebook, a compilation of many previously separate documents detailing the best practices that enabled the authority to win numerous awards.

 

“Some of the notebook content wasn’t even written down,” says Anderson. “It was just floating around in the heads of our staff, and it’s important to get all that wisdom into print for future reference.” Etowah Water now makes the notebook available through GAWP for use by other Georgia municipalities, and feedback has been highly positive. The notebook covers areas including:

• Public outreach and education

• Community interaction

• Promotion of conservation

• Workshop design

• Protection of resources

• Capacity management operations

 

The notebook is updated and revised continuously as new or more effective tactics and practices are developed. “It’s a bit like a playbook for how to win with GAWP, and we’re happy to share it with other pros in our industry,” says Anderson.

 

Doris Cook, resource manager, adds, “Adopting our notebook is really great recognition. What an honor to know that other authorities are being encouraged to follow our lead. Still, we always want to do better.”

 

Anderson adds, “This is important work. And if we do it well, we’re pretty much invisible to our customers. They just want everything to work. Out of sight is good.”



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