Money, People, and Water Appreciation

When these come together, communities may be able to manage yet another crisis

I believe we are in the early days of a new and different water crisis. This one is rooted in concerns for replacing infrastructure and staffing which, ultimately, can’t be done without dramatically raising water and sewer rates.

Water treatment, storage, distribution, collection, and disposal infrastructure is failing on many fronts. Many facilities have been in the ground and on-line for more than 25 years and at best, are leaking and creaking. At worst, system components have completely deteriorated and need replacement.

The money is a problem
Frankly, I have been shocked by the physical and operating conditions of plants in both small and large communities. Many systems I visit seem to be operating, from a mechanical perspective, on a day-to-day basis.

Replacing these systems is fiscally problematic because the approximate cost of a 1- million-gallon-per-day wastewater treatment facility serving about 10,000 people is $10 million. That amount does not include the collection system, pump stations, and annual operating costs that add millions of dollars more in local expense. The billions of dollars provided through the Clean Water Act are not so readily available from the federal government these days.

But there is more to worry about. Someone has to manage these facilities, old and new, to comply with strict state and federal standards. Who will do this?

Consider these random staffing problems I am aware of:

• A Florida city wasn’t able to fill an entrylevel technician position after a one-year search. • A California pretreatment facility took five months to fill a position. • A second Florida utility seeking staff waited four months before receiving its first applicant.

This problem is not isolated to the southeastern or western coasts. Lately, many articles and talks have been devoted to the staffing crisis. The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation have figures on employment needs and the impact of losing qualified staff to retirement. I won’t dwell on these numbers, but I will expand on the causal side of the issue.

Ken Kerri, Ph.D., esteemed engineering professor at California State University (Sacramento), told me that “it just seems that current students are not that interested. The sizzle is in business, banking, medicine, law, and the like.”

Bottom line: The utility engineering and operations field lacks glamour and perceived financial returns. This is not encouraging, particularly as we consider the need to replace up to 50 percent of the utility workforce in the next 10 years.

Who would work in the water sector?
Why aren’t more people interested in the field? Well, the money is not talking. Staff compensation levels ranging from $9 to $18 per hour for experienced personnel is still the norm in many parts of the country. Yet, operations personnel are required to demonstrate their competence in mathematics, basic microbiology, chemistry, instrumentation, SCADA systems, data management, computer use, public safety, chemical management, security, and environmental permits on a state examination. (SCADA is supervisory control and data acquisition.) They also are expected to respond to late-night calls, any night of the year. Many utilities offer inadequate compensation, especially when compared to other service and technical trades that don’t require subject proficiency or midnight repairs of sewage overflows.

Staff image issues compound the recruitment problem. Sophisticated biological nutrient removal facilities have upped the technical knowledge ante by magnitudes. In most cases, compensation offers to fill these positions is inadequate or unreasonable. We strive to be professionals, yet city administrators and townsfolk refer to staff as operators—as in operator I, II, III. Staff members are informed that if they truly apply themselves, they can become an “operator IV or V.” If this is our best recruiting mantra, the number of vacancies is only going to get bigger.

Assuming we clear up the image and compensation issues, we still face an additional obstacle in the path to real change. Staff must be certified or licensed to operate and manage water utility systems. While the spirit and intent of this licensing program is not in question, a tangled web of individual state programs unintentionally inhibits staff entry, retention, and movement to other states within the profession. What started some 30 years ago as an effort to define water knowledge proficiency on a national basis has turned into a “whose state program is better” territorial competition. I’ve heard some defensive arguments to the logic, but they don’t hold water.

National knowledge proficiency
States should seriously consider, once again, a common national base of competency. The Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) was created more than 25 years ago to achieve this goal through the team effort of state certification officers. They came close. Years later, one might fairly conclude that something went wrong.

Examination questions may be technically out of date or irrelevant to changing technology. For example, questions regarding membranes, biological nitrogen and phosphorus removal systems, process control approaches, high-flow management strategies, colorimetric testing and calibration procedures, basic instrument maintenance, and chlorine-alternative disinfection questions must be developed and added to examinations to maintain their validity in the wastewater area. Similar changes and innovation in the test areas of collection systems, water treatment, and distribution systems also must be made.

Reciprocity barriers hinder the already depleted supply of qualified operators from moving and adding value to a community utility in a different state. Examination takers, most of them family bread winners, may lose a nominal salary raise or a position of advancement, because they failed a state test by one or two points. It would be unfortunate if those two points could be traced back to unclear, invalid, unreliable, or irrelevant multiple choice test questions. I do not believe that I am alone in this opinion. During a presentation at the 24th National Operators Training Conference in June, I made a point that the certification program needed a serious overhaul. The audience spontaneously applauded. The proficiency needed to manage an activated sludge facility in Oregon is identical to that in Kansas or Florida. The decentralization of certification programs should be halted for the good of the greater order.

In order to stimulate employee interest in this sector and keep costs of facility operation, repair, and replacement from soaring, utility work must be viewed as a profession that is prestigious, contributes to society, and makes a difference in public health and the environment.

Here’s a prescription for immediate starters:

• System owners must embrace the future. Terms that project staff value to society such as “water technician” or “environmental specialist” should replace the water and wastewater operator vocabulary. A positive professional culture must be created and maintained.

• Staffing compensation must be increased to levels that attract competent, reliable technicians of new or upgraded facilities.

• Innovative recruiting must stimulate engineering graduates to operate these new highly technical facilities that are being designed and constructed.

• Public education programs must be improved dramatically. They need to be elevated beyond the brochure displays at the local festival booth.

• More urban community colleges must begin offering two-year water technology degree programs. Curriculums must match new treatment and delivery sophistication.

• Professional associations must reassess how they project the profession and engage actively in changing terminology that publicly supports the need for an image makeover. Their current efforts are not good enough.

• State agencies must review their exam programs and embrace common reciprocity approaches as the pool of available workers dwindles and the search for qualified personnel transcends state boundaries.

• Utilities must create and use technical tiger teams that transcend traditional staff separation between water and wastewater departments.

I won’t let the townsfolk off the hook here, either. What does a family of four’s movie matinee have in common with your monthly water utility bill? Answer: in most cities, the cost is about the same. In many places, this traditional mall event costs more than the entire monthly water utility bill.

I don’t hear much griping about the cost of three hours of entertainment. But try to raise the local rate of water by half a penny per gallon and sparks start to fly. It’s upsetting to hear that citizens are up in arms because of a proposed $5 to $10 increase in the monthly local water/sewer rates. I also find it odd that we don’t notice a penny difference in the price of gas yet rail at the thought of a similar increase in the cost of the second most essential human substance on the planet.

Water is a product
Apparently, people need to understand that the fee for water is not a tax. Water is a product sold on store shelves, at a retail markup of at least 750 times the wholesale rate offered by most utilities. The simple math: the wholesale utility cost runs about a penny a gallon. The retail rate of 95 cents for a 16-ounce bottle is equivalent to $7.60 a gallon. I agree that bottled water has carrying convenience quality. I buy it myself sometimes. But I don’t complain about my home water bill, and I support justified increases. We have been raised to believe that multiple, clean-water taps and flushing toilets in our homes are inalienable rights of being U.S. citizens. I suggest we also start believing that the cost of this luxury is about to go up.

In closing, I offer a simple test to challenge your local water care factor.

1. Do you know the location of your local water or wastewater facility?

2. Have you ever visited either one of them in the spirit of family and community education?

If the answer is no, than you should find out and go. Visit a system with your children and learn about this life-giving and undervalued product you are buying. As a result, you will begin to pay more attention to personal water conservation and become more attentive to local issues and their resolution. As my friend and environmental mentor Dan Campbell once said in chiding an audience—do something to make a difference.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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