More Than Pipes

Your people are your system’s greatest asset and its greatest agent of change.

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What does the ideal version of your water or wastewater system look like? What does optimum performance mean to you? Is it about the condition of your pipes or the quality of your people?

I pose those first two questions because I think a lot of people frame the overall state of their utilities in terms of infrastructure grades, and rightfully so in many ways. Since I became editor of MSW a few years ago, I’ve read countless stories about the failing water and wastewater systems across the U.S. and the billions of dollars it will take to bring that infrastructure up to standards.

Reports detail sanitary and combined sewer overflows, crumbling networks or pipes and endless references to infrastructure reaching the end of its expected life span. Few utilities have the funding to get on top of the problem and replace infrastructure at a faster rate than it’s decaying. It’s easier for municipal boards to approve Band-Aids than bona fide solutions. So utilities trudge on, spending more money on emergency repairs than rehabilitation and replacement projects that would save huge sums of money over the long term.

That third question, about pipes versus people, is aimed at the root of how you approach this problem. For most, operating budgets far outweigh capital budgets. Utilities spend a lot of money on their people. Creating an environment where those people can realize their full potential — where innovation is celebrated and everyone is invested in the successes and failures of the department — is going to be a big part of the solution going forward.

The Powdersville (South Carolina) Water District, one of the utilities profiled in this issue of MSW, provides a good example of how people are just as important — if not more so — as pipes. Powdersville has become a nationally renowned water utility, one of only 11 to receive the prized Directors Award in the Partnership for Safe Water’s Distribution System Optimization Program.

The improvements at Powdersville are the result of the communication and interaction among the staff. Using monthly meetings that can last up to three hours, a cross-cut of employees from various departments within the Powdersville Water District discuss goals and agree on projects and directions the district undertakes. Everyone has input, and everyone learns from one another.

Powdersville is a rapidly growing community. The utility is busier than ever, yet while the workload has doubled over the past couple years, it hasn’t had to add any more personnel. Everyone wears multiple hats and everyone is focused on doing more with less.

There has been an investment in the infrastructure — from metering upgrades to storage and distribution line improvements, and a SCADA overhaul — but it’s the teamwork and dedication to constantly improving service that has made the difference in Powdersville. New meters may improve efficiency, but quality people change the system.

This month’s Human Side column, about developing talent and leadership, dovetails nicely with this idea. The theme is consistent with the Powdersville story — people make the difference — and the column provides some insight and advice on helping your staff become agents of change.

I hope you find these stories valuable.

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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