fbpx

Permitting and Preparing for the Retirement Wave With SNWA

The Challenge

Like many water authorities, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) was confronting a looming retirement wave. 

With a number of key employees set to retire, Kevin Fisher, the Director of Water Quality and Treatment decided to take a deeper look at the impact this would have on permitting, and the SNWA’s ability to stay in compliance.

No one knew how many permits were being managed—an amount they would discover totaled over 3,000. Each one had unique requirements to fulfil for a key regulatory body. Not reporting or complying would mean that the utility could be subject to severe penalties and fines.

With permits being handled across the organization without a central permitting database, there was simply too much risk. 

The biggest concern: when the key employees responsible for these permits retire, so will their processes and systems.

The Solution

Kevin and the SNWA team turned to Klir’s permit management system to pull this information together. Klir takes the risk of managing and complying with permits of the individual by centralizing the information and automating the tasks and activities needed to comply with all permitting across the organization.

“The Klir Team understands regulatory permitting for the water sector and they have worked diligently to learn our complex systems and processes to ensure effective integration and successful, wide-scale deployment,” says Kevin.

The Impact

With 100% visibility for management into all permits, SNWA has:

"After successfully completing a pilot of the Klir technology, we are now deploying the platform across our organization to help improve the efficiency of our environmental compliance and permit management processes"
Kevin Fisher
Director of Water Quality and Treatment

How Klir can help

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling every aspect of wastewater management—including compliance, sampling and more—into an easy to use dashboard.

Learn more about how Klir can cut down on administration and record-keeping work, create new opportunities for collaboration, and provide a level of system-wide visibility unmatched by other water data management systems.

How to Prepare for PFAS (& Avoid a PR Disaster)

“A town’s water is contaminated with ‘forever chemicals’ – how did it get this bad?” That’s one of the headlines that residents of Pittsboro, North Carolina, woke up to earlier this year when the Guardian published a story about the community’s water supply.

Researchers had found that a local Chemours/DuPont chemical plant had released potentially toxic amounts of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”—into the town’s water supply.

As more of these investigations play out in the public eye, PFAS represents one of the greatest threats to public confidence in drinking water in recent memory. 

For municipal leaders and water operators across the country, the question is: what can you do to prepare?

PFAS Goes Public

PFAS entered the national conversation just a few years ago, but research has already linked them to everything from liver cancer to reproductive health issues, and some states have moved to ban them altogether. Congress began to move on PFAS last month when it passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which will require the EPA to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water in the future.

Although the EPA already includes PFAS on the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), few laws currently exist dictating what utilities should and shouldn’t be doing about PFAS.

But if you ask WaterPIO founder and communications expert Mike McGill, utilities waiting for directives from legislators are missing a key opportunity to position themselves as leaders on the issue.

“The next time the EPA updates UCMR, you might have to start testing for dozens of different PFAS, and those testing requirements might cover more and smaller utilities. And if that’s the case, you’ll have to start communicating about PFAS as soon as you can.”

The Price of Waiting

Much is still unknown about the exact health risks posed by PFAS and the best ways to eliminate them from our water supply. But one thing is for sure: just because PFAS isn’t a problem in your backyard right now doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually be.

“Academics and activists are out there in the interest of protecting public health. They’re going to conduct tests in our waterways, and they are going to find these chemicals, and when they do find them, they’re going to keep making headlines,” says Mike McGill, who like many other water experts, believes we’re due for a reckoning on PFAS.

He says that if utilities don’t become the first communicators on the subject—that is, the first point of truth that the public turns to for accurate PFAS information in the local water supply—they risk losing control of the narrative completely.

“It becomes a scandal, if you will. Then suddenly we have to start throwing solutions against the wall to make up for the fact that we’re behind. And that’s where you start making mistakes.”

Utilities that choose to wait until they’re forced to respond risk the following:

Losing Time and Money

Waiting can get expensive. McGill recalls how one water utility in North Carolina spent more than $150 million on a facility to treat water for less than 100,000 people in a rush to address a local PFAS contamination.

PFAS treatment technologies like granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange are already expensive, but if utilities wait until they’re forced to act, they risk scrambling to calm a distraught customer base and hastily picking a treatment solution that might not work for them in the long term.

Losing Control of the Narrative

Just because utilities didn’t create the PFAS problem doesn’t mean they should be afraid of taking responsibility and claiming the issue as their own. 

Not doing so could mean that someone else—regulators, environmentalists, manufacturers, or even customers themselves—takes control of the narrative. And as McGill emphasizes, when utility customers discover that they have potential carcinogens in their drinking water, “it wasn’t me!” probably won’t cut it as an excuse.

“If you’re not leading the conversation, then the customer is [simply] going to blame the utility for something they didn’t do.”

Eroding Trust

Utilities will have to ‘go first’ when it comes to communicating the threats and challenges of PFAS, and for many organizations—especially smaller utilities not used to doing lots of communications work—doing so might seem like a nerve-wracking experience.

But McGill says waiting could fundamentally erode a utility’s relationship with its customers.

“I used to run a newsroom for a couple of years, and we had an old adage: ‘if I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last.’” 

Testing, Treatment, and Transparency

If you’re looking to get ahead of PFAS, Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency sets a shining example for a successful communications strategy.

In 2019, California state officials started asking utilities to test wells for PFAS contaminants. The order didn’t require agencies to take any further action, even if they discovered high levels of these contaminants.

Still, when SCV discovered that one of their wells had exceeded the 70 nanograms per liter advisory level, they sprung into action. They shut down the contaminated well, and began sampling all of their other wells for PFAS. 

The agency quickly put in motion plans to build a new treatment facility, but its plan would rely on an even more immediate line of defence. 

SCV embarked on an ambitious communications campaign to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open, led by communications manager Kathie Martin.

The agency began posting regular updates about PFAS testing, changes in regulations, and progress on their (now complete) treatment facility construction to a dedicated portal on their website, social media, and the agency’s email newsletter. Customers also had ample opportunity to learn about PFAS offline, at community meetings and via direct mail.

“Not only were we trying to be completely transparent upfront. We also wanted to be a little bit ahead of the game. That turned out to be the right decision,” says SCV operations director Mike Alvord.

The Benefits of Communicating Proactively on PFAS

So, should your agency take a leap of faith, or adopt a “wait and see” approach? 

Experts like Mike McGill argue that effectively communicating on the issue could result in lasting, long term benefits:

Develop a Leadership Advantage

‘Going first’ on PFAS won’t just allow utilities to cut down on public relations risk. It could also permanently cement their place as leaders and experts on the issue, building lasting credibility with customers, media and other stakeholders who are looking for answers. 

“If you are willing to get out front and say, ‘we’re going to test, and we want to go above and beyond, because that’s what we think our role is as the provider of safe clean drinking water is,’ there’s a lot of power behind that. Especially when you get results,” points out McGill. 

Influence Policy

One specific advantage to adopting a leadership position on an under-regulated contaminant like PFAS is that utilities stand to meaningfully shape policy as it’s being written. 

The more effective utilities are at communicating the on-the-ground realities of treating water for PFAS, the more likely it is that those realities will inform future legislation.

Build More Proactive Organizations in General

The benefits of effectively communicating on issues like PFAS also go beyond any single contaminant or treatment project.

As SCV’s Alvord points out, his organization’s radically transparent approach to the issue did more than just alleviate Santa Clarita Valley residents’ fears about PFAS. It also helped his organization come together and build a strong work culture in the wake of an 2018 SCV agency merger that combined four separate water utilities into one.

“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord, noting how SCV’s efforts to remain transparent to the public also ended up making the organization more transparent to itself, and therefore more cohesive.

“If we were separate, I think it would have been much more difficult.”

Proven practices for PFAS PR

Taking a lessons from agencies like SCV, here are some approaches to consider as you look to communicate how your agency is acting on the PFAS problem:

1. Take Credit for Your Work

The first step of any good PFAS communication strategy is to take stock of what your organization is already doing about the issue, and to not be afraid to brag about it. 

Have you already started testing for certain PFAS? Has your utility already started working with PFAS treatment technologies like reverse osmosis, GAC, and ion exchange? Then your customers need to hear about it.

Make sure that any valuable work you’re already doing on PFAS doesn’t get buried or confined to just one communication channel, either. 

“I worked with one utility that tested for 75 different PFAS, and their data was spectacular. But they only made a passing reference about that in their water quality report,” points out Mike McGill. 

These types of documents tend to get buried on your website. If you’re not actively pushing this information out to the public, it will likely fall by the wayside.

2. Identify Other PFAS Advocates and Experts

It might also be useful to take stock of other experts in your network or area who might be doing important PFAS work.

Are there any local academics who have published research on PFAS in the past? Environmentalists who have lobbied local governments? Media outlets who have published stories about PFAS? Now might be a good time to become familiar with them and their work, and use it to inform your strategy. 

3. Take a Leadership Role

Even if your utility already does excellent work on PFAS and has good relationships with external stakeholders, you might still feel apprehensive about broadcasting those efforts to your customers. 

McGill understands why utilities might be nervous to take the lead, but he says that the ones that do stand to benefit far more in the long run than those who stay quiet.

“You need to become a thought leader, because by doing so you help out the entire industry. You show the path of how to handle it properly.”

Getting More out of Biosolids With Better Data

“We used to have a plant manager who would say he’d put it on a Triscuit and eat it. I don’t know that I’d do that, but it certainly wouldn’t harm you.”

That’s what Ryan Cerrato, an employee at New York-based composting company WeCare Organics, told a Vice journalist about his company’s compost in a recent documentary.

WeCare makes compost from biosolids—human waste that has passed through sewage treatment—which it then sells to farmers, nurseries, and gardeners as high-quality fertilizer. While most American consumers might not know it, biosolids are becoming an increasingly important part of our water treatment and agricultural systems. 

As wastewater utilities face growing pressures to find cost savings while also increasing environmental outcomes, improving the quality of biosolids is becoming more important than ever before. 

So how exactly can treatment plant managers get more out of biosolids while spending less? It’s a question that might very well come down to data.

What are biosolids?

Biosolids are solid waste that have been treated and reclaimed from the water system. 

About half of all biosolids produced in the U.S. today are recycled and used as fertilizer. But not all biosolids are recycled: of the roughly 4.75 million dry metric tons (dmt) the country produced in 2019, a little under half ended up incinerated, landfilled, or stored as waste. With the right treatment processes, all of that waste could be put to more beneficial uses. 

That’s where the question of biosolids quality comes in.

What are Class A and Class B biosolids?

The EPA’s 40 CFR Part 503 is the guiding star for wastewater operators and other processors looking to gauge the quality of their biosolids. This framework breaks biosolids down into two classes:

Class A biosolids have been treated and tested for pathogens and deemed safe enough to use in agriculture, gardening, and landscaping. They’re the kind that companies like WeCare buy from utilities, process, and resell: good for the environment and crucial to creating a closed loop, zero-waste system.

Class B biosolids are any that don’t make Class A. They might be safe enough to use in some applications, but they also contain detectable pathogens and/or high concentrations of metals like arsenic, chromium, and mercury that might make them unsuitable for growing food or soil remediation. 

While Class A biosolids are an asset, Class B are expensive to dispose of and transport, and might pose a health risk for people working with them. So getting that B grade up to an A is worth more than just extra credit.

How to test biosolids

Most wastewater treatment plant operators have their eye on three different kinds of data when they make decisions about what to do with biosolids:

  • Sampling results, which are conducted at various stages of the treatment process and analyze water and biosolids for pathogens, drugs, metals, and other contaminants.
  • Continuous monitoring data from certain pieces of plant equipment for variables like temperature and pressure.
  • End product data, like class (A/B), weight, water content, transportation and disposal cost, etc.

For decades, plant operators have relied on legacy infrastructure to monitor this data and make decisions in the biosolids treatment process. But modern cloud-based platforms are giving operators the ability to view and analyze this information, so they can spot trends and act sooner. 

Systems like Klir merge real-time data from sources likesupervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to reveal opportunities to improve the product quality while managing harmful contaminants from the outset. 

The risks of lagging data in biosolids processing

Working in spreadsheets and SCADA systems can feel a bit like pulling teeth. They’re slow, opaque, unintuitive, and often few people at an organization have the ability to pull reports.

These delays mean that operators are often reviewing the data long after it was processed—sometimes a month later, and have little means of intervening in the biosolids treatment process until it’s too late.  

These lagging data sources aren’t just an annoying time suck: they can also pose a genuine threat to your operation. 

Those risks include:

  1. Releasing contaminated biosolids 

When there’s a lag between the time a sampling test is completed, and the time that an operator can manually query and interpret those results, there’s a lot that can be missed or go wrong, including the possibility that those solids leave the plant before the test results come back. 

Those kinds of mistakes can be costly—nine agencies received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from the EPA in 2019 for approving contaminated biosolids.

  1. Reporting and record-keeping errors

Using Excel to deal with ever-larger data sets opens you up to the possibility of data loss, which can cause major reporting problems.

Filing a false report, even by accident, carries a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 2 years in prison. Meanwhile, willful violations carry a criminal fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation and up to 3 years in prison. 

  1. Data access problems

Your organization’s data should belong to the organization. But if team members are constantly creating their own workarounds to address the limitations of legacy software and spreadsheets, that can create problems around data ownership, especially if one of those team members is absent or leaves the organization.

How real-time data analysis drives better biosolids 

For treatment plant operators, intuitive platforms like Klir are making it easier to access and display vital data and make decisions quickly. 

The result? Treatment plants save on transportation costs, while minimizing biosolid waste. 

Here are the key ways that water & wastewater analytics software help drive better outcomes:

1. Reduce costs and improve product quality

Biosolids are heavy, and the more water a treatment plant can extract from them, (known as “cake dryness”) the lower their transportation costs. With real-time data analytics, plant operators can take the right actions to lower transportation costs and identify efficiencies that might otherwise be invisible.

Real time data lets you:

  • Proactively influence the product outcome with an end-to-end view of operations
  • Develop key insights into product grading
  • Perform ongoing weight vs. cost analysis
  • Set budgets to meet cost and quality goals

2. Better report design and data collection

Displaying data in a format that is easy to understand and ‘ready to go’ decreases the amount of time workers must spend processing and understanding their data while also encouraging and rewarding better data collection.

3. Stay in compliance and predict problems before they happen

Data analytics dashboards help operators and managers identify any failures or problems that might come up, cutting down on costly compliance errors. 

Quicker and more up-to-date sampling results also mean that plant operators can focus on forecasting trends and anticipating problems rather than constantly working backwards to trace where a contaminant came from. The result? Treatment plant teams can:

  • Stay compliant with real-time quality monitoring 
  • Receive automatic warnings when contaminants approach or exceed limits
  • Proactively triage issues and intervene before contaminated product leaves the facility

4. Increase efficiency

Automated data analysis frees plant managers from data detective work, and gives them new insights on how to continuously improve their processes, allowing them to:

  • Analyze sampling data in real time, no queries required
  • Spot problems before they happen
  • Ensure monthly and annual reports are always consistent
  • Perform reporting work in a fraction of the time

5. Break down data silos

Providing plant operators and employees with clear visuals and a holistic data view can help dismantle a culture of reactivity by de-siloing information. The result is a holistic picture of operations across the plant.

With transparent and interactive dashboards, managers and employees can:

  • ‘Slice and dice’ data to meet their business needs
  • Confidently depend on a single source of truth
  • Create an open forum for communication 

6. Futureproofing

Wastewater organizations that move to cloud-based systems to manage data across their plants are in a better position to anticipate future changes to biosolids regulations and industry standards. That’s because they can easily add new reporting criteria and scheduling requirements, merge in new data sources, or add in new parameters to instantly spot troubling maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). 

Improve your biosolids with Klir

Klir’s treatment plants module is designed to help wastewater treatment operators access real-time insights, so they can reduce the cost of managing biosolids and effluents while improving their environmental performance.

Interested in learning how Klir can help your facility improve its performance? Talk to one of our experts.

Drinking From a Firehose: Stop Fighting Fires and Make Real Progress on Your Utility’s IT Strategy

You have dozens of unanswered calls on your phone, and your desktop is overflowing with support tickets. Your GM needs your help recovering files from their laptop, and you aren’t even an hour into your workday. Forget about an IT strategy—you’re just focused on staying afloat. Sound familiar?

When you’re an IT professional at a large water or wastewater utility, staying on top of day to day tasks can feel like a challenge. If you aren’t attending to a deluge of support requests or fighting fires, you’re worried about keeping legacy systems online or attending to a backlog of security updates. Instead of preparing for the future, you’re just worried about staying afloat.

Rather than let this tidal wave wear you down, we’ve developed a few strategies to help you stem the flow, give your team room to breathe, and implement practices that deliver exceptional service in the long run.

1. Make Self-Service Support as Easy as Possible

Few things are as frustrating for an IT team as having to field the same question over and over again. It gets in the way of more important work, and if you aren’t careful it can make the rest of your organization unreasonably dependent on IT to solve non-technical issues.

That’s why one of the quickest ways to stem the flow of repetitive support tickets is to anticipate them with a great internal FAQ, wiki or central knowledge repository—basically somewhere you can direct users who have questions you’ve answered many times before.

Building out one of these resources can have implications that reach beyond IT. In fact, the average employee spends about 9.3 hours a week poring over email threads and other communications searching for internal company information they need to do their jobs.

In addition to cutting down on support tickets, an IT knowledge repository can play a crucial role in onboarding and make your organization more friendly to new users in general, create discipline around which tools your organization uses, and also offers you the opportunity to proactively communicate a digital strategy to the rest of the organization in the form of a digital playbook.

2. Get the Rest of Your Organization Involved in Your IT Strategy

Another great way to anticipate and fix problems earlier is to involve team members more closely in your IT strategy by establishing a committee or council composed of directors across the different departments in your organization.

Getting managers to flag and discuss broader IT problems in this way won’t just cut down on support tickets. It also lets you offload some of the burden of implementing your digital strategy, gets everyone on the same page when it comes to tools, and will make staff in general feel more invested in your IT strategy in general.

Involving people in your IT strategy this way also helps you avoid so-called custom “shadow IT” initiatives pursued by impatient managers. These can be terrible for IT workflow: they introduce tools and systems that the rest of the organization is unfamiliar with, emboldens other departments to do the same, and could bring your organization to a grinding halt if the manager responsible ever goes on vacation.

3. Choose Low-Maintenance Tools

When procuring new software, keep an eye out for tools that empower your users to be self-sufficient, rather than having to depend on you or an external consultant for instruction.

Use Cloud-Based Tools by Default

A great way to do this is to default to cloud-based tools, which require less time to set up, don’t have a backend for you to worry about, and are often designed to be more intuitive and customer-facing.

Talk to Your Users

Are there any tools or software that staff at your company already use privately, or have experience using at other jobs? If so, implementing them officially could be a great way to save onboarding time and make your users even more self-sufficient.

Explore ‘No Code’ Solutions

Another way to make the software your organization uses more friendly to team members is to leverage so-called ‘no code’ solutions, which offer non-technical team members the chance to understand and even contribute to your team’s technical processes and systems.

Update Your Legacy Systems

If your organization depends on outdated, clunky legacy systems, they’re probably depending on you to put out the fires that those systems cause as well.

If there’s a system or software that takes up a particularly large chunk of your time, consider flagging it with management. Make sure to consider and communicate the resources you might save by replacing it with a more contemporary solution.

4. Automate, Where Reasonable

Automate as many of the mundane tasks involved in your day-to-day work as possible. Once you’ve implemented an FAQ or internal wiki, for example, try complementing it with a support chatbot that can answer basic support questions. If you rely on email or direct messaging to process support tickets, consider implementing a system purpose-built to handle support tickets for IT like Zendesk.

5. Consolidate, and Work With Vendors Who Support Multiple Functions

Another pain point that IT operators at utilities face is the excessively complicated tangle of software solutions they’re currently expected to support.

To this end, application consolidation is key when it comes time to start overhauling and procuring new systems.

As much as you can, avoid overlap and redundancy in your systems by picking vendors that support multiple functions, rather than just one.

Take Klir, for example. To complement your procurement process, Klir offers modules to manage permitting, sampling, inspections and more. These modules are available à la carte, or can be combined as a complete water management system.

Klir doesn’t just enable utilities to remediate environmental and human health risks quickly: it also helps managers decide where and when to invest and surfaces opportunities for efficiencies that are difficult to see with spreadsheets or more opaque systems.

How Klir can help

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling every aspect of water management into an easy to use dashboard. Learn more about how Klir can cut down on administration and recordkeeping work, create new opportunities for collaboration, and provide a level of system-wide visibility unmatched by other water data management systems.

Request a Demo

Book a demo with our team and receive the latest industry insights and exclusive offers.

We will reach out shortly to find a time that works for you.

Request a Demo

Book a demo with our team and receive the latest industry insights and exclusive offers. We will reach out shortly to find a time that works for you.