Tackling Both Sides of Water and Wastewater

Cross-trained employees boost Kansas utility’s efficiency and reduce costs.

Tackling Both Sides of Water and Wastewater

The El Dorado (Kansas) water distribution team includes (from left) Chase Halton, equipment operator Brent Peck, Superintendent Gary Taylor, administrative assistant Michelle Linson and equipment operator Chad Schlesner. (Photography by Denny Medley)

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The El Dorado (Kansas) Water Distribution & Sewer Maintenance division prizes efficiency. And one of the primary ways the small utility achieves that is through cross-trained employees, who allow it to accomplish more with less — and save money in the process.

“We’ve always done it that way,” says Gary Taylor, superintendent of water distribution and sewer collection for the division, part of the city’s Public Utilities Department. “Our eight employees know how to flush sewers, as well as fix water main breaks.

“We get a lot more calls for sewer service than water service,” he continues. “So if we didn’t have cross-trained employees, the guys who do sewers would be out all the time, while the guys who do water wouldn’t be very busy. And the sewer guys wouldn’t get much time to spend with families.

“We only have eight guys in the field, so it makes us much more efficient if all of them can handle both water and sewer calls.”

In addition, an internal operating policy mandates that the division must respond to calls for service within 20 minutes. And most emergency sewer calls come in after normal working hours and on weekends, Taylor notes.

“With cross-trained employees, we only need two people on call instead of paying four people to be on call (two for sewer calls and two for water calls),” he explains. One two-man crew is on call 24/7 for one week at a time on a rotating basis.

Two employees at the division are meter readers who check and read every meter in the city each month and change out meters when necessary.

“We always push to do things as efficiently as possible,” notes Kurt Bookout, director of Public Utilities.

Great water quality

Located roughly 30 miles northeast of Wichita in southeastern Kansas, El Dorado has about 13,000 residents and is the county seat of Butler County. The utilities provide water for about 35,000 city and county residents and sewer service for about 16,000 customers.

Drinking water comes from the 8,400-acre El Dorado Lake, a man-made reservoir created by damming the Walnut River. The Army Corps of Engineers finished the project, aimed at providing flood control and drinking water, in 1981.

The watershed that drains into the lake is predominantly a native tallgrass prairie; as such, water quality is excellent because there’s less nutrient runoff from cropland, Bookout explains.

“We’re one of the few lakes in Kansas that has had no problem with algae blooms,” he says. “Our water quality is exceptional. We’ve won two annual awards from the American Water Works Association for the best-tasting water in Kansas. Excellent quality of water at the source translates into great finish water at the tap.”

The water system includes 129 miles of distribution mains (primarily made from cast iron), 2,919 water main valves, 692 fire hydrants and 5,171 water meters. On the sewer side, the system encompasses 93 miles of collections lines (mainly clay tile pipes), 1,872 manholes and 11 lift stations.

Equipped for maintenance

The division handles most water and sewer maintenance in-house. Contractors are usually hired for major projects, but division employees recently completed the installation of two new manholes and 200 feet of gravity-fed sewer mains to serve new customers.

To inspect sewer lines, crews rely on an Envirosight ROVVER RA200 paired with a portable and compact Oupost system. It’s mounted on a Gator all-terrain vehicle, made by John Deere, which helps crews access remote manholes.

To clean sewer lines and lift stations, the division invested in a Vac-Con V311LHA combination sewer truck with an 11-cubic-yard debris tank, 1,300-gallon water tank and three-stage blower.

Powered by compressed natural gas, the vacuum truck includes a hydroexcavation package used primarily to expose underground utility and fiber optic lines during spot repairs on pipelines or while installing new service lines to homes and businesses.

“Hydroexcavating is a lot quicker and a lot safer,” Taylor explains. “Plus, it can save money, too. If you hit one of those fiber optic lines, it gets expensive pretty fast.”

The truck is also equipped with a system made by Vaporooter (a division of Douglas Products) that disperses a chemical foam in sewer lines that kills tree roots. A nozzle cleans the line on the first pass, then fills the sewer line completely with foam as the nozzle is retrieved.

“We Vaporoot about one-third of the sewer lines annually on a rotating basis,” Taylor says. “The foam chemical leaves a residual layer inside the pipes, so we try not to flush sewers unless they’re actually blocked. If we keep the roots out, they stay pretty clean.”

As a result, the city’s scheduled cleaning for sewer lines focuses only on known problem areas, which get flushed on a quarterly basis.

Older infrastructure

Aging waterlines and sewer lines pose a continuous challenge for the division. Most of the city’s sewer pipes are 80 to 100 years old, and some are even 125 years old. And most of the city’s water mains were laid between 1905 and 1955, Bookout says.

“We’re like most cities across the U.S. with old systems,” he explains. “We’re always trying to stay ahead of the rate of deterioration of old underground infrastructure. That’s a constant battle, so our philosophy is to invest as much in infrastructure as we can to stay ahead of the deterioration.”

The division annually updates a five-year capital improvement plan that prioritizes projects based on infrastructure condition and need. The budget is between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, Bookout says.

One major project occurred in 2009 after a study identified bottlenecks in the sewer system that were slowing down the movement of wastewater from the north side of El Dorado to the treatment plant on the south side. Improvements included boring under the Walnut River to install a new 8-inch-diameter force main, rebuilding the city’s largest lift station by replacing existing pumps with three variable-frequency drive pumps made by USEMCO (Universal Sanitary Equipment Mfg. Co.), installing new larger interceptors north of the lift station, and manhole rehabilitation. A $500,000 Community Development Block Grant from the state of Kansas helped fund the $1.3 million project.

In 2010, the division also upgraded a lift station that serves the El Dorado Correctional Facility and the Butler County jail. A contractor installed two new variable-frequency drive pumps, also made by USEMCO, and a Duperon FlexRake, a screening system that filters out trash and debris. The total cost was $424,000.

“That lift station serves a maximum-security state penitentiary and the Butler County jail, and we were removing about 125 pounds of compacted debris from it every week,” Taylor explains. “Inmates flush all kinds of stuff down the toilets, from sheets and pillowcases to jumpsuits — everything.”

Ongoing system upgrades

In 2016, the division upgraded undersized residential sewer lines in the southeast portion of the city, which were only 6 inches in diameter compared to 8 inches in the rest of the city. Part of the town was destroyed by a tornado in 1958, and Bookout surmises that for unknown reasons, contractors installed 6-inch pipes in those areas, which is too small for inspection cameras to get past offsets.

The $1.2 million pipe bursting project, funded partially with a state grant and performed by Nowak Construction, included replacing roughly 6,731 feet of pipe with 8-inch-diameter PVC lines in about a 6-square-block area. In addition, the company lined 386 feet of pipe.

On the potable side, the division in 2010 and 2011 added a booster pump station, creating a new pressure zone on the west side of the city. In addition, a new generator and four variable-frequency pumps built by Pentair - Fairbanks Nijhuis were installed in the water treatment plant. The total of these projects was around $2.5 million.

The division owns a Vermeer D6x6 horizontal directional drilling machine, primarily used to install new 2-inch-diameter PVC waterlines that replace corroded cast iron lines. The machine allows crews to shoot new lines from a water main on one side of a street to houses on the other side of the street by going under the roadway.

“We’ve abandoned about 4 miles of old undersized and unreliable cast iron lines in the last eight years and replaced them with PVC pipes,” Bookout notes. “It has cut down on a lot of water leaks.”

Emphasis on training

While not immune to employee turnover, the division emphasizes training and membership in professional organizations as a way to retain workers in an industry in which they’re difficult to find.

“A lot of young people these days want to make big money right off the bat,” Taylor notes. “And it’s dirty work performed in both very hot and very cold weather. You’re not sitting in an air conditioned office behind a nice desk.

“Providing employees with training helps them feel like they have a career, not just a job.”

Bookout also points out that the continued training makes crew members more knowledgeable. “They develop a sense of pride in their career choice and get a chance to meet and network with others in their field — learn the tricks of the trade. We’ve received eight awards from the Kansas Water Environment Association for the best wastewater plant of the year during the last 13 years because our guys are very well trained and professional.” (Utilities are barred from applying for the award every third year.)

As an example, employees are encouraged to attend annual conferences held by groups such as the Kansas Water Environment Association, (which hosts an annual Environmental Engineering Conference). >span class="s2">The conferences include numerous opportunities to attend classes and seminars that provide valuable continuing education and certifications for technicians, Bookout says.

“There’s also a fantastic state-of-the-art training facility in McPherson that’s operated by Kansas Municipal Utilities, a statewide organization of municipal-owned utilities,” he adds. “We do as much training as we can, but we plan to do more.”

Budget constraints

Looking ahead, the division doesn’t have many large projects lined up due to budget limitations. One exception is a $2 million plan to line about 60,000 feet of sewer lines and 10,000 feet of larger interceptor lines.

The lines currently aren’t creating problems. But they’re among the deepest-laid sewer pipes in the city — some as deep as 25 feet. As such, it makes more sense to be proactive and fix them while they’re still structurally sound, he explains.

“Since they’re so deep, it would be harder — and more expensive — to wait until there’s a problem to do a repair versus lining them while the pipes are still intact,” he points out. “We prefer to be proactive rather than reactive. When something is that old, you’re living on borrowed time.”

Funding for capital improvements is a constant struggle for the utility. The need to replace aging infrastructure conflicts directly with residents’ preference for low water and sewer rates. To get around that resistance, the division is starting to use social media to inform the general public about the need for more funding for infrastructure improvements.

“We’re always trying to hold down rates,” Bookout says. “But we’re probably not being blunt enough about the need for reinvestments in infrastructure.”

Bookout’s own combined water and sewer bill, which also includes a fee for refuse collection, is between $50 and $60 a month. By comparison, he says his cable television bill is three times that and his cellphone service costs four times that much.

“The water and sewer bill is the smallest one I pay each month, yet it’s the most essential service,” he says. “The problem is that people have gotten so used to paying so little for water and sewer that they get upset when you raise rates a little.

“They don’t understand that in some cases, the infrastructure they’re using was bought and paid for by their great-great-great-grandparents and has a finite life span. And we’re now reaching the end of that life span.

“And the generation that’s now using that infrastructure has to pay to replace it, and they don’t want to spend the money — until it fails. It’s a struggle to make people understand.” 


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