Apr 10, 2007

Good Old Days Long Gone

It’s cold. It’s dark. The smell of raw sewage fills the air. “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!”
Actually you wouldn’t call Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd or Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters fame, but rather your local water and wastewater magician. Neither rain, snow nor sleet—or the need for sleep—will keep this professional from answering the call to repair yet another aged wastewater line whose replacement has languished for years.
Water and wastewater utilities will be facing a myriad of challenges in the years ahead. The “good old days” when the infrastructure was new, the regulations were few and utility managers sported dark hair are long gone.
Today’s water and wastewater utilities must nurse aged water and wastewater infrastructure, which by now should be earning Social Security. At the same time, today’s utility managers must cope with increasingly stringent regulations, competition for raw water and ever-increasing customer service demands.
These challenges bring premature aging to utility managers accompanied by increasing hair loss, insomnia and occasional “mad moments.”
However, the complexity and the breadth of the challenges are what attract capable leaders to the utility business. The allure of the utility business is clearly the opportunity to serve fellow citizens and the excitement of juggling armfuls of conflicting priorities and still making meaningful progress. Said simply, what a great job!
In this article, we will examine some of the most significant challenges facing water and wastewater utilities and identify some best practices, which will help utilities continue to provide safe and reliable drinking water and wastewater services to their customers.

Aging infrastructure

In many parts of the country, especially in the older industrialized areas, water and wastewater facilities are aged and in need of replacement or upgrading. The last major drink of federal and state grant funds was in the 1970s and the prospects for a new major influx of federal or state grant funds are dim, at best.
Utility consultants rightfully recommend as a best practice the creation and funding of a “3-R reserve account” (repair, replacement and rehabilitation) due to the fact that plants, pump stations and lines have finite lives and must eventually be replaced. There is no dispute that every utility should create and fund a 3-R reserve account.
Unfortunately for many utilities, political pressure has kept utility rates low or the area economy is weak and the customer base is barely surviving on fixed incomes. These utilities—and there are many of them across the U.S.—are simply unable to significantly fund a 3-R reserve cccount. Because the cost of construction continues to escalate significantly and other priorities can take up funds, even the utilities that can fund a 3-R reserve account may find themselves short on needed funds.

Environmental issues

Water and wastewater utilities have historically and rightfully been regarded as champions of the environment and responsible environmental stewards.
However, we have recently seen the focus of federal and state regulators shift increasingly to community water and wastewater utilities.
This is not to criticize dedicated federal and state regulators or to characterize them to resemble Walter Peck, the loveable legal representative of the Environmental Protection Agency in “Ghostbusters.”
The increased focus on the utility industry is caused by several factors. First, water and wastewater utilities have recently been plagued by front-page news articles on sanitary sewer overflows, nutrient enrichment of bays and estuaries and violations of permit requirements. The release of raw sewage during heavy rains or the failure of aged infrastructure has become a major concern of regulators and local citizens.
Second, wastewater discharges from communities meeting their historical permit requirements are now being found to cause water quality problems; thus municipal dischargers are increasingly finding themselves the subject of demanding total maximum daily loads.
For example, sanitary waste discharges that travel to tributaries in the Chesapeake Bay, one of our nation’s most precious natural resources, must be upgraded to resolve water quality problems in the bay.
Third, gone are the days when a municipal drinking water provider had virtually unlimited access to area water resources. Today, science has demonstrated that water is a scarce resource that must be fairly allocated between competing uses. For example, minimum in-stream flow must be maintained under all weather conditions to protect and assure a balanced aquatic ecosystem. This generally means that drinking water suppliers will, at times, be limited in the quantity of stream flow they can use for their drinking water customers.

Strategic planning

It is a best practice that all utilities develop a strategic plan to guide the utility and ensure that it effectively addresses key strategic challenges.
Some utilities create “feel good” strategic plans that are little more than “dust catchers.” These utilities celebrate the creation of their strategic plans but they fail to drive it into the culture and daily activities of the utility. While the strategic plan plays an important role at utility “show and tell” events, it does not transform the utility or move the utility forward to aggressively address its key strategic needs.
A strategic planning best practice is to involve all levels of the utility organization, including its governing board or commission, in the strategic planning process. Experience has illustrated that some of the best ideas and most practical implementation advice will come from plant operators, members of the line maintenance crews and the administrative staff. If a utility does not actively involve these individuals in the strategic planning process, it will lose valuable input and will not ultimately achieve employee acceptance.
Once the strategic plan is drafted, it is best for the utility to make it available to its customers and members of the public. Experience indicates that the wider the utility throws the net, the better the strategic plan.
It is also a best practice for utility management to carefully explain the strategic objectives to employees and describe how each of them plays a key role in ensuring the long-term success of the enterprise.
The single most important factor of the strategic planning process is the steps utility leadership takes once the plan has been created. Utility officials should thoughtfully cascade the strategic plan objectives throughout the organization and use the strategic objectives to create performance objectives for the utility managers and staff.
This accomplishes a lot for the utility and its employees because it places the key strategic objectives into the hands of the employees who will be responsible for accomplishing the objective. It also gives each strategic objective a champion to lead the charge within the organization. Most importantly, it ensures employees remain involved in the process and it helps ensure organizational alignment with the key strategic objectives.

Capital Investment Plan

The creation of a capital investment plan (CIP) is a best practice for all water and wastewater utilities. It is best to develop a CIP with at least a ten-year planning horizon. The traditional creation of a one- to five-year CIP is simply not adequate in today’s fast-paced utility world.
In order to bring a capital project to fruition, the project must be carefully planned, environmental permits must be obtained and long-lead equipment must be procured. In addition, projects and related schedules must reflect the reality that construction times have become extended. It is not uncommon to need five years or longer to plan and construct major new facilities. As such, utilities must start early on their capital planning and recognize that it will take time to bring new facilities into operation.

Final analysis

Utility leaders face many challenges in providing safe and reliable water and wastewater services to their customers. They must increasingly rely upon these best practices and they must not suffer in silence when utility rates must increase to address aged infrastructure and new environmental needs.
Utilities need to invest in education to establish a community-wide understanding of the need and benefits of raising utility rates. Community education is not an activity that can be undertaken the week before the utility rate hearing; rather it is best to conduct year-round community education. A properly educated community will understand the need to increase utility rates in order to address aging infrastructure and new environmental needs.
Utility managers must develop strategic plans and then cascade the key strategic objectives throughout the organization. Strategic plans should not be ornaments or dust catchers that do not add value for utility customers.
Communities are truly fortunate that we have a cadre of dedicated utility managers who work tirelessly on behalf of their customers and communities. We are fortunate that they are there for us and we do not have to call Ghostbusters!

About the author

Lawrence C. Tropea, Jr., P.E., BCEE is president and CEO of LCTropea PLC, Environmental & Engineering Services. He can be reached at 423/963-2633 or by e-mail at [email protected].