Winning the Water and Wastewater Fight

Cobb County Water System earns string of honors for its performance, but focuses on doing right by its customers.
Winning the Water and Wastewater Fight
The Cobb County Water System management team includes (from left) senior contract/project manager Kathy Nguyen, system maintenance division manager Timmy Vaughn, environmental program coordinator Jennifer McCoy, operations manager Kendall Jacob and environmental compliance tech Jamie Stones.

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What do you do after receiving five consecutive gold awards from your fellow utility professionals?

For the Cobb County Water System in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, one answer was simple: take home the platinum. And that’s what the utility did in 2015. With five consecutive Gold Awards for Outstanding Operation of its wastewater collections system from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals Chapter of the American Water Works Association, the utility qualified for the association’s platinum Award last year.

But that’s just a trophy. The real next step is just to keep on improving — every day, every week and every year.

“We want to serve our customers,” says Kendall M. Jacob, the utility’s operations manager. “We enjoy being good stewards of resources such as water. We’re very proud of the county and proud of our customer base.”

Wide-ranging approach

The Cobb County Water System has taken a wide-ranging approach to continuously improving and maintaining the quality of its operations. The utility — responsible for both wastewater collection and treatment as well as water distribution — strives for overall excellence that includes its Capacity Management, Operation and Maintenance (Cmom) program, and also encompasses conservation, watershed protection, public outreach efforts and much more.

Headquartered in the county seat of Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County Water System — a unit of county government — is the second-largest utility in Georgia. The system employs 446 people, with 289 of them in operations.

The system gets its treated water from the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority and accounts for 70 percent of the authority’s wholesale customer base. It distributes that water to about 780,000 people in the county and parts of four surrounding counties. It also collects and treats all wastewater generated in the county — a customer base of about 1 million. And while the two sides obviously have their separate responsibilities, it’s one system. “From an operations standpoint, it’s all under one group,” Jacob says.

Capital improvement

For the system’s intensive capital improvement program, a 16-member team with people from the operations and engineering groups reviews the CCWS capital improvement and rehabilitation project list every two weeks to monitor progress and review priorities, says Timmy Vaughn, the system’s maintenance division manager.

The system’s solid financial footing enables it to fund most of its capital improvements out of regular revenue rather than going to the bond markets, where it enjoys a triple-A bond rating.
While CCWS will replace pipelines when necessary, the utility is a heavy user of rehabilitation technology for sewer lines. In addition to CIPP and spiral-wound pipe lining technology from S1ekisui Chemical Group, it has also begun to use Tyfo Fiberwrap, an exterior carbon fiber wrap from Fyfe Co., for exposed lines, such as elevated sewer lines that cross streams in the hilly geography of northern metro Atlanta.

Asset management

Cobb County has also taken on asset management using the SIMPLE — short for Sustainable Infrastructure Management Program Learning Environment — web-based asset management tool offered through the Water Environment Research Foundation.  

The utility has no small number of assets to manage: 2,575 miles of wastewater collection mains, 3,025 miles of water distribution lines, 38 wastewater pump and lift stations and six freshwater storage tanks.

“We face a growing problem that every utility in the world, particularly in the U.S., faces: aging infrastructure,” says Jacob. “That’s what we talk about almost constantly.”
Vaughn says the utility has shifted from reactive response to a more preventive approach. “Preventive maintenance schedules, for example, call for regularly checking and testing lift station pumps — anywhere from once a quarter to once a month,” he says.

In the field

For maintenance, the system is divided into four zones; employees in each zone meet regularly to report on equipment, training and other needs.

Maintenance operations are handled by 30 crews working across the system’s four maintenance zones. Repair crews each consist of three people, while landscaping and combination truck cleaning crews consist of two people. Additional crews are assigned to do pressure cleaning with a trailer jetter and to operate a pushrod system for clearing clogs.

Crews conduct CCTV inspections in each zone on a regular schedule in search of minor problems that can be documented and corrected before they become more significant, while contracting out the work for special projects. Outside contractors also step in for special projects, such as the system’s chemical root control effort to reduce sewer line blockages.

The crews are equipped with laptop computers they can use to call up virtually any asset information they need while on site. In responding to emergencies, the system’s central dispatch office uses locating devices on each vehicle to establish which crew is closest to the scene of a call.

Communication and outreach

The county uses its CMOM program to keep an eye on everything. The program was implemented in 2003 in compliance with state and federal requirements to provide greater access to information about sanitary sewer overflows and other operations and maintenance questions for wastewater systems.

The program is essentially a communications platform on the web, at County residents (or anyone, actually) can go to the site to learn about virtually every aspect of the system, from the progress of capital projects to emergency incidents such as overflows. There are also links for people to report problems directly to the utility.
CMOM isn’t the only means for CCWS to connect with its customers and the community. Outreach is an important part of the system, and outreach efforts include an annual report on watershed care.

There are also programs to teach elementary, middle and high school students about the importance of responsible stewardship of water resources, both through sound water conservation practices and careful management of the wastewater stream, explains Jennifer McCoy, who heads the system’s watershed stewardship program.

The system works with a network of volunteers who collect stream data, clean up litter from local waterways and mark stormwater drains with no-dumping messages to curb pollution from careless discarding of old chemicals, for example.

Proactive attitude

Additional outreach programs provide the public with information about water quality, the cost and funding of the water and wastewater systems, and conservation challenges in ways that are “accurate and understandable for the public,” explains Kathy Nguyen, manager of the CCWS conservation and efficiency program.

Since the conservation program launched in 2005, average daily demand has dropped by 10 mgd, Nguyen says — a decrease of about 15 percent over the 10-year period. Water system customers are doing things like repairing their leaks faster, collecting water in rain barrels for use in gardens, and turning to more efficient fixtures.

Outreach goes beyond just conservation. When the news broke about the lead contamination problem in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, the system didn’t wait for public inquiries. “We took on the Flint issue head on,” Nguyen says. “We worked with our water wholesalers — Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority — on a brochure on how we test for lead and copper and what we as consumers need to do” to ensure that water is safe to drink.

With its emphasis on continued improvement, keeping up the skills of employees is a key priority. “We’ve written our job position descriptions so that at certain levels, they require certain certifications,” Jacob says. In turn, the utility makes sure they have access to education, certification and licensing opportunities on the job.

Through an in-house certification program offered in conjunction with Chattahoochee Technical College, CCWS employees can get advanced training and state certification as they progress through their careers, Vaughn explains. The system stresses communication from entry-level workers to top management, Jacob says.

What drives it all? Pride, professionalism and the satisfaction of taking care of customers, says Jacob — values that can last long after the trophies are forgotten.

Prizewinning FOG program

There seems to be no shortage of prizes for the Cobb County Water System.

Besides its 2015 Platinum Award from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals that honored the long-running excellence of its wastewater collections system, CCWS has twice been recognized for its FOG management program.

The county has nearly 1,700 food service establishments, including day care centers, schools and hospitals in addition to commercial restaurants, says Jamie Stones, who heads the grease management program with two inspectors.

FOG management became a separate program in 2000 because of repeated sanitary sewer overflows attributed to grease clogs, Stones says. Taken together, grease and roots account for “probably 90 percent of our overflows,” adds Kendall M. Jacob, CCWS operations manager.

By adding customer education to its mission in addition to enforcement, “we’ve decreased sanitary sewer overflows by 40 percent since the early 2000s,” Stones says.

The CCWS program extends beyond ensuring grease traps are kept clean and are used effectively.

For example, large commercial outdoor trash containers must drain to a leachfield or tie into the sanitary sewer line to keep garbage pollution out of the storm sewers. And if there’s a sewer connection, there needs to be a trap, Stones explains.

Sewer overflows become teaching moments. “Anytime there is an overflow, it gets mapped in our GIS program,” Stones says. Restaurants and other kitchens in the overflow area then receive a door hanger and fact sheet that includes FOG management reminders.

The utility also inspects all new commercial-size kitchens to ensure that they’re complying with FOG regulations. The paperwork is entered into a database that Stones manages.

Keeping the industry informed can be a challenge. “We still get questions from people who say, ‘I don’t fry anything, I don’t produce any grease,’” Stones says. Those establishments can be shocked to learn how much FOG they generate.

“We spend a lot of time to educate them on what they can do to decrease their grease,” she adds.

And while CCWS has gotten the recognition, Jacob points out that other cities and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority also work together to combat the FOG problem. “It’s a team effort with the whole water system.”


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