Small Utility Keeps Up with Big Cities

Newmarket tackles system maintenance and upgrades with all the best-practice tools and techniques of a larger utility.

Small Utility Keeps Up with Big Cities

The Newmarket Environment Services Department includes (from left) Ben Trottier, Sean Greig, Todd Gianotti, Sue Landale, Shayne Barbosa, Joel Drelick and Sam Heffron.

The town of Newmarket, New Hampshire, may be tiny and its Environmental Services Department might not be big enough to field a baseball team, but the utility takes itself just as seriously as its largest counterparts in water and sewer services across the nation.

And its responsibilities have been just as weighty, from successfully battling chronic water loss in its water distribution systems, to reducing inflow and infiltration in its sewer lines, to the need to overhaul aging infrastructure.

Facing challenges like those, Newmarket has been systematically pressing ahead, undertaking major renovations in both its water and sewer operations while planning ahead for more. Along the way, it’s adopted the same sophisticated technologies of larger municipalities, as well as the best practices of the municipal environmental services industry.

“We’re not seeing ourselves as a small municipality,” says Sean Greig, Newmarket’s Environmental Services director, whose department oversees both the distribution of clean water to the community’s nearly 9,500 residents and collecting and treating the community’s wastewater. “We’re just trying to do what we can do. And it just happens we’re keeping up with the big cities.”

Newmarket is nestled in southeastern New Hampshire about 15 miles west of Portsmouth — closer as the crow flies, but the roads have to wind around Great Bay at the mouth of the Bellamy and Piscataqua rivers. Some 60 miles north of Boston, Newmarket is a one-time mill town that has evolved into a bedroom community with old factories now made over into residential lofts and a variety of small businesses.

Newmarket’s Environmental Services Department was formed in 1990 from the merger of what were then separate water and sewer commissions. The community’s water supply comes from three wells. The two oldest, Bennett and Sewall, are gravel-packed wells that have historically produced “beautiful drinking water,” Greig says.

After a drought started in 1998, the town restarted an existing water treatment plant to purify surface water, but the system was unable to meet higher federal Clean Water Act standards, so that was eventually shut down. To meet the need for more water — the town’s population has grown by about 10 percent since the year 2000 — Newmarket brought a third well (MacIntosh) online in 2016 and has a fourth one (Tucker) in development for future use.

Aging infrastructure

“Because we’re in the Northeast and because our community is so old, our biggest challenge is aging infrastructure,” Greig says.

After having worked in the department in various other jobs, Greig was named director in 2008. In past decades, the community didn’t put aside funds to maintain and replace the system, so Greig and his immediate predecessors had to play catch-up. An early project, begun before his promotion, was replacing water meters throughout the system to reduce water loss and help the town bill more accurately for water service.

In addition to replacing existing meters for paying customers, the department also decided to put more meters in, even where they wouldn’t be used to actually bill customers — for the park system, the highway department and similar locations. “We may not be billing them, but we’re seeing where all the water’s going,” he explains. And still other customers weren’t being billed properly but should have been.

Improved efficiency

While water loss ranged from 20 percent to as high as 29 percent in the years 2006 through 2010, according to a 2017 report to the town, it has declined to as low as 3 percent currently, Greig says. And thanks to greater customer awareness about water overuse and the spread of more efficient products at the consumer end, from dishwashers and washing machines to stingier showerheads, the town is also saving water through conservation.

“We used to pump about 160 million gallons of water into the system a year,” Greig says. “Now we’re pumping about 133 million.” While progress was already being made before he took over the department, there was also the challenge of how much work remained. “If you actually looked at everything and tried to do everything, you probably would have just gone crazy,” he observes.

So early in his tenure, the crew decided to list everything it could — “all our issues.” And instead of getting bogged down agonizing over “what we can’t do,” the department flipped the script. “We started looking at things and trying to prioritize things based on what we can do. We’d do one step at a time and see what the improvement was. We started picking things off that list, and things started getting better and better and better.”

In 2011, the department updated its previous capital improvement plan for the water system, and in 2017 Newmarket commissioned a 20-year build-out plan that projects a 36 percent growth in water demand over that period. Along with that plan, the town has an asset management program for its water distribution and treatment infrastructure. The oldest waterlines in the 28-mile distribution system are cast iron dating back to 1894. They are being replaced with ductile iron.

Greig says town officials have already committed to the first 10 years of projects in that proposal, which will include removing the last 5 or 6 miles of cast iron waterline still in use.

Planning ahead

On the sewer side of the department, Newmarket completed a major upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant about a year ago. The five-year, $11 million project included a complete conversion from trickling filter treatment to a four-stage Bardenpho process, as well as replacing pumping equipment, aeration tanks and other components. At the same time, Greig says, the department is already thinking ahead to the next time something will need to be fixed. Having valued the replacement cost of equipment and calculated its life span, “what that came to was $150,000 a year we’re setting aside to replace equipment when it needs to be replaced.”

Now at the top of his agenda is an overhaul for the town’s six wastewater pumping stations, as well as development of an asset management and growth plan drawing on the 2017 build-out study.

“The ultimate goal is to take those two plans” — for the water and sewer systems — “and then to overlap them and see if there’s some projects we can do together to save money,” he explains. He also aims to work with the town’s Public Works department to see if any such projects can be bundled with roadwork and drainage areas to help save money and make more efficient use of time spent tearing up rights-of-way, “so we can do projects that can impact the community a lot more and give a better product at a lower cost,” he says.

People and equipment

Greig takes pride in the department’s investment in equipment, including its 2004 Vac-Con combination truck (built on an International platform) that was rebuilt in 2016 for $150,000, “far less than purchasing a new one for $330,000,” Greig says.

In 2012 the department invested in GPS mapping technology using Trimble Yuma GPS-equipped field tablet computers and has since mapped the entire water and wastewater systems. More recently, the department acquired a sewer camera and has been using it to inspect lines after every cleaning.

While the new technology and equipment has had a big impact, Greig knows the value of investing in good people to make it work, but that isn’t always easy for a small municipal utility.

“We’re competing with all these bigger communities around us,” Greig says. “If you go to the bigger city, they pay more money. We want to keep good people, so we try to compete with the wages. But how we do it here, we just try to be a good place to work.”


One of his main tactics is cross-training his staff of seven people. If someone gets hired elsewhere, he knows that the departing employee’s work can still get coverage while a replacement is recruited. Although not required to get licenses outside their primary assignment, he encourages them to do so.

“I structured my department so that anybody can basically do anybody’s job,” he says. Yes, there are titles — the wastewater maintenance director, laboratory director, director for the distribution and collections systems, water operations director and so on. But at the same time, they’re also trained to fill in for each other in the event of absence or a departure.

There’s no holding back, no professional silos: Sharing information about your particular work is the order of the day. Greig says he abides by that same principle, so “if someone leaves, we’re not stuck — everybody will know my job.”

“Where I really sold everybody on this is: ‘Who wants to do the same job every day? Isn’t it much more interesting if you’re doing different things?’” Of course, it does give another selling point that could subject him to even tougher competition from outside employers: “It makes you more marketable if you want to go someplace else.

“It works for everybody,” Greig continues. “It’s good for them because it makes them better, well-rounded people to maybe aspire to something higher. But it also helps out the town as well because we’re getting more out of them.”

Setting goals

His other principle is to ensure staff members have autonomy at work. “They’re in charge of their deal, and I let them do their job,” Greig says. “I hold them accountable because I want them to take ownership in what they’re doing.”

His standing message for everyone, he says, is this: Walk around, open up your eyes and look for ways to improve. “And we sit down at the beginning of every year and go over goals and things that we’re looking at doing. And then at the end of the year, we sit there and say, ‘Well, did we improve? Did we get better? What worked? What didn’t work?’”

He’s proud of how well they’ve come through. “I couldn’t tell you everything we’ve done so far in the past 10 or more years to get as far as we have, because they’re really good,” Greig says. “They have taken ownership in what they have, a pride in what they have, and so we have a very successful program.”

Staying in touch with the public

For its small size, Newmarket, New Hampshire’s Environmental Services Department has an impressively big footprint on the internet and especially on social media.

The department’s website, of course, is just a section of the town’s website, but it’s well-organized with information both on the department’s ongoing capital improvement efforts, as well as subjects such as public service announcements on water conservation, keeping the sewer system running smoothly and practical insights on subjects such as bills and budgets.

Even more impressive is the agency’s Facebook presence, where the department engages visitors with a wide range of messages. New posts go up at least three or four times a month and often more frequently.

The Facebook page was originally started by Joel Drelick, the department’s Water and Wastewater System technician, says Sean Greig, the Environmental Services Department’s director. It became, along with the website, another communications channel “just to tell people what was going on” in the department’s work.

Then, last year, Greig was able to hire his first administrative assistant, Sue Landale. Maintaining the website and the Facebook page fell to her, with Drelick giving some guidance. Since then, Greig says, the content of both have ramped up considerably.

“She’s been really working on our website to get it where it needs to be,” Greig says. And even more with the Facebook page.

Landale already had some initial understanding of the department’s work. She came to the job from the town hall, where she had been doing billing for water and sewer services, so she already knew Greig. The move “seemed like a natural transition to me,” she says.

But a key to her success with the internet communication features, Greig says, is that Landale didn’t know much about the technical side of the water and sewer operations. What she did know is what kind of posts would spark interests among the town’s ratepayers.

“She really pushes my guys for information on stuff to put on there,” her boss says. And they oblige — sometimes with the wastewater industry version of “gruesome pictures,” he says with a chuckle.

“She was looking at a different perspective than we were to get the message out. We’re talking in wastewater language or water language, which we talk all the time, and the everyday person just looks at us completely perplexed.”

When Landale learns about some obscure sewer or water fact that she figures will interest ordinary customers, she asks questions, helps explain it in everyday language and puts up a post about it.

And, evidently, she has a ball doing so. With the fact that “no two days are the same,” Landale says, she enjoys planning her own workload and the job of helping present the department’s digital face to the world.

She’s modest about her work, though — like when, instead of bragging about her attention to detail, she just jokes that she’s using her “OCD skills.” And she credits a “really good tutorial” that gave her pointers on how to build and maintain the website.

“It’s learn as I go,” she says. And for her department, it sounds like she’s learning exactly what she needs to.


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