Facing Challenges as a Team

Evansville, Ind., takes back control of its water and sewer utility and focuses on system improvements.
Facing Challenges as a Team

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In life, they say money can't buy happiness. When it comes to infrastructure, money can't solve everything either. A successful collections system needs care, attention, and a long-term commitment to maintenance.

Just ask Evansville, Ind. Faced with massive overflow issues that date back more than 50 years, the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to rectify the situation. But until the Evansville Water and Sewer Utility (EWSU) took back management control from a private contractor and implemented what deputy director of utilities – engineering Mike Labitzke calls a "team approach" to caring for the system, results were marginal at best.

Labitzke says the biggest challenge has been changing the culture of how the department works. "That's the hardest thing to do, changing how we do things after people have become used to doing what they've been doing for 19 or 20 years," he says.

"There are no black boxes," he says of the solutions. "It just takes time as we all work together, talking things through, and working as one."

A stormy history

The city has been working to solve combined and raw sewage overflows, some of which entered the Ohio River, for a long time. In 1996, Evansville experienced two 50-year storm events in the same week. "The flooding impact of the rain storms was extensive," Labitzke says. "Standing water was evident all across the city, and in some areas, the water was the result of combination sewer hydraulic overload."

In news reports, residents described basements flooded with up to 7 feet of water, water above finish floor elevation, impassable streets, and homes that couldn't be sold because of a history of drainage problems in the neighborhood.

"I remember seeing people in small boats going down a street ... it was scary," says Allen Mounts, EWSU director.

The flooding — most serious in the southeast section of Evansville — prompted the city to develop its first stormwater master plan in 1997, identifying 39 projects to be completed at a total cost of $80 million. The EWSU and the city's Board of Public Works jointly completed nearly $30 million of the improvements over the next few years. The work included construction of a 96-inch stormwater relief tunnel in the Weinbach Avenue area, as well as several flooding relief sewers and separation of storm and sanitary sewers in a number of critical areas. The last of the first phase of these projects are expected to be completed in 2014.

Then in 2006, more heavy rains forced the city to update the master plan. Another 30 projects were identified, estimated at more than $115 million. During the implementation of the second round of stormwater projects, the capacity of the city's two wastewater treatment plants was also expanded (see sidebar).

Money for the improvements came from three sources: low-interest loans from the state revolving loan fund, a bond issue, and rate increases. Despite these investments, the city continued to release an estimated 3.4 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow each year into the Ohio River and Pigeon Creek from 22 different overflow locations. Under a 2011 consent decree with the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice, the city has preliminary plans to spend an additional $227 million over the next 20 years to increase the amount of wastewater treated and significantly reduce the overflows. The draft plan was submitted for EPA review and public input on July 31.

Change in operations

Since 1995, the Evansville water and wastewater utilities, including the collections systems, were managed by a private company. However, in 2010, the city decided — largely for economic reasons — to return operation of the systems to the local utility.

"Following a review process, the utility board and city administration concluded it could provide better and more cost-effective service managing the systems in-house," says Labitzke, noting they used organizational references from the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis to create a management structure.

With the utility in charge, and with the consent decree and its accompanying Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance (CMOM) plan in place, Evansville has taken new, proactive efforts to clean, maintain and manage its sewer infrastructure:

Over 100,000 feet of preliminary smoke testing in key sanitary sewer areasOver 42 miles of sewer inspectionCCTV work in certain areas as necessaryInspection of all 1,400 sanitary trunk line manholes for structural defectsPurchase of additional combination jet vacuum trucks (Vactor)Use of two new CCTV trucks (CUES)

"We had three Vactors, 12 to 15 years old and one about 6 years old," says collections manager Travis Hildebrandt. "Our TV truck was in an old-style van and was 15 to 20 years old.

"We also purchased an easement machine. We track it back through easements to reach the manhole. It gives us access through right of way areas — gates, fences, pools, anything blocking the easement and accessibility to manholes," he says.

"We've adopted an aggressive cleaning schedule. This year we plan to clean over 75 miles of sewer pipe (8 inches to 15 inches) and inspect another 75 miles, and inspect up to 2,000 manholes. We expect to repeat these quantities annually so we can complete the entire system in seven years."

Labitzke adds, "We clean, then TV, making sure the pipe is clean enough to get the camera in. Two and a half years ago we couldn't have done that. Those two things work hand-in-hand. Work of this nature and on this scale had not been done in decades."

Starting in 2013, EWSU will also add flow monitoring, smoke testing and sump pump inspections to its list of CMOM activities, furthering its attempts to limit the amount of inflow and infiltration.

In addition to cleaning the system, the EWSU team is repairing and reconstructing lines as they go along — using lining and trenchless techniques (Insituform CIPP) where possible. "As we look at our sewers, we identify sections in need of repair," says Hildebrandt. "Some of our lines are 100 years old. The combined area is all clay pipe or old brick construction.

"Basically, we're putting out fires. If we have extra time, we're raising manholes. On a limited basis, we can be proactive (on repairs). One of the advantages of utility control is we added a second shift." That has allowed the utility to reduce overtime labor expenses and increase responsiveness.

Another change involved modifications to the Seventh Avenue pump station along the river.

"Rated at 45 mgd, it's the largest lift station outside of our treatment plants," explains Labitzke. "We looked at rainfall on a monthly basis, along with the CSO amounts for those months, and plotted a CSO capture curve. Closing the CSO and maximizing the storage area available to us (in the interceptor) has allowed us to increase CSO capture by 50 percent."

Wastewater superintendent Harry Lawson adds that additional capacity at the treatment plant also helped a lot.

EWSU is also improving its instrumentation and its ability to meter and monitor flow, working closely with the CH2M Hill and EmNet consulting firms. The utility completed the conversion of paper maps to GIS in 2011. Earlier this year, the utility updated an antiquated billing system and instituted a new work order system. "We now have a dashboard which helps us optimize and manage the system," Labitzke says.

Last May, some members of the engineering department became certified to provide pipe and manhole inspections, assisted by specialty software (Granite XP) which scores and ranks the city's infrastructure for asset management decision making. This crew has already collected data on 30 miles of pipe and hundreds of manholes.

"Wireless applications will give us more timely reporting of system defects," says Labitzke. The new tools have "changed everything we do and how we do it."

Results? The Evansville team reports less overflows and less lateral backups during this early period, but notes it's been a dry summer in the area and throughout Indiana.

People factor

While getting the system back up to speed has presented significant challenges for the Evansville team, handling the culture change from private to public operations has been daunting as well. Having and sharing common objectives has been a key.

"We have the same goal, clean and TV at the same time," says Hildebrandt. "We're working together to get there. Our philosophy is, 'we don't leave until it's clean.' "

Labitzke points out that the utility had only four employees at the changeover, but they retained the existing hourly workforce and retrained the engineering workforce to inspect manholes and pipes and on TV camera work.

"For years, we weren't working together," Labitzke says. "That's been our biggest challenge. We still have our skeptics, but now all our departments are working together better. In the past, we didn't have that."

It's a change that the consent decree may actually have facilitated. "The consent decree certainly required the utility to think outside the box about how, when, and why work was completed. Our management team has stepped up to the planning challenges while keeping our heads down on the day-to-day operations," says Labitzke.

"We have an amazing team of utility employees tackling problems 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year maintaining a very old infrastructure ... the work will never end.

"All eyes are now on the system," he concludes. "Before, we simply weren't looking."


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