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Good planning prevented pandemic problems for public water suppliers in Minnesota

Monday, June 7th, 2021

MDH releases annual drinking water report, showing no major issues

Despite the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, public water utilities in Minnesota continued to provide safe drinking water to millions of Minnesotans over the past year, according to new data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

The statistical results of the steady work and consistent monitoring by thousands of public water supplies are contained in the 2020 annual drinking water compliance report released by MDH this week. But the real story is the work that has gone on behind the scenes to deliver safe drinking water to large and small communities across Minnesota.

The public water systems in Minnesota adjusted their operations and found ways to provide critical services while keeping health and safety as the highest priority.  

Most systems were ready to deal with the pandemic as a result of contingency plans already in place. Cross-training of employees was one way in which utilities prepared, making sure distribution crews and those at the treatment plant were sufficiently versed on one another’s job to be able to step in in case employees became sick. Many followed a plan based on the “40% Drill,” which MDH promoted more than 10 years ago during the H1N1 influenza outbreak. The drill consists of randomly selecting 40% of utility staff to be listed as “out sick” and conducting a drill on how to maintain operations with the remaining 60% of employees.  Although no utilities sustained such a reduction because of illnesses among their staff, public water systems were prepared for such a scenario.

Early in the pandemic, Kyle Hinrichs, superintendent for the water utility in Mankato, used his experience with the 40% Drill to create a work plan and schedule that would allow them to continue with the daily duties of managing a utility while losing as much as two-thirds of the workforce. Fortunately, the utility escaped the virus and did not lose any employees to illness.  However, Hinrichs said, “I felt confident, especially with previous cross-training we had done, that we could have maintained 24-hour operations even if we had people out sick.”

With proactive planning, Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) was able to prevent disruptions in day-to-day water services. Doug Klamerus, manager of maintenance and construction for RPU water, said they staggered start times to reduce contact between employees and relied on past cross-training to ensure work could continue through water challenges they encountered. “We went to one-person jobs as much as possible, reduced group work, and limited contact with customers and one another,” Klamerus said.

Rick Wahlen, manager of utility operations for the city of Eden Prairie, said their past planning for emergency response and resiliency was helpful, but the pandemic was “something unique in nature.” The city began planning as soon as they were aware of the pandemic, dividing employees into three-person work groups to limit exposure. “That way, if anyone got it, only two other people would be affected.” They were able to get through the pandemic without any instances of COVID among operators in the water treatment plant.

Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said partnerships were key to ensuring the pandemic did not create problems for the state’s drinking water supply.

“Providing safe drinking water to homes and businesses day in and day out doesn’t just happen on its own, but is the result of hard work and extensive partnerships,” Commissioner Malcolm said. “As a result of these partnerships, even in times like COVID-19, we can still go to the kitchen sink and expect to have plenty of safe water.”

Through floods, tornadoes and other disasters that shut down businesses and other operations, public water systems have consistently maintained a safe supply of water for customers. COVID-19 has been a challenge, but the drinking water profession continued to come through.

“Though the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated changes in how we do our work, the drinking water program at MDH has sustained its work to keep drinking water safe for everyone, everywhere in Minnesota, in partnership with 6,724 public water systems across the state,” said Sandeep Burman, manager of MDH’s section of Drinking Water Protection.

In addition to its normal operations, Drinking Water Protection supported public water systems in dealing with the pandemic in many ways, including:

  • Establishing webpages to contain information about COVID-19 and drinking water.
  • Creating and sharing guidance on how to respond to changing needs.
  • Adapting sampling plans to protect the health of staff while ensuring that all public water supplies continue to meet Safe Drinking Water Act requirements for monitoring.
  • Modifying requirements for water operator certification and contracting with a vendor to provide certified operators to help systems who become short-staffed because of illness to employees.
  • Connecting certified water operators to on-line training opportunities.

In 2020, more than 99% of Minnesotans drinking water from a public water system received water that met all federal standards throughout the year. Details of the Minnesota Annual Compliance Report (PDF) for 2020, along with the Annual Report for 2019 (PDF) can be found on the Drinking Water Protection Annual Reports page on the MDH website.

In addition to the report issued by the state, communities across Minnesota are required to issue their Consumer Confidence Reports to their public water supply customers by July 1 each year. Those reports provide details on the results of monitoring for each public water system.

-MDH-

https://www.health.state.mn.us/news/pressrel/2021/water060321.html

Holiday Light Recycling is back!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

Recycle any and all of your old holiday lighting between now and Friday, January 29, 2021. Just drop your old lighting strands off at the RPU Service Center (4000 East River Road NE). The recycle bins are right inside our lobby.

What is accepted:

  • Holiday Lights – incandescent or LED (working or non-working)
  • Holiday Light Decorations

What is NOT accepted:

  • Appliance Cords
  • Battery Packs
  • CFL Lights
  • Cord Adaptors
  • Electric Cords
  • Plastic Rope Lights
  • Telephone Cords

2020 Lake Zumbro Dam Fall Drawdown

Friday, October 30th, 2020

The fall drawdown of Lake Zumbro is scheduled to begin on November 1st. The drawdown is necessary for planned maintenance and shoreline restoration work.  The public should be aware that the drawdown planned for this fall will be substantially greater than normal.  A typical fall drawdown is less than two feet; whereas this year a four foot drawdown will be attempted.  These plans are subject to change depending on rainfall and resulting runoff.  RPU’s drawdown plan is as follows:

  • Sunday, November 1st start the 4 foot drawdown.
    • RPU will plan to draw the lake level down 0.5 feet per day while maintaining a minimum flow of 70 cfs.
  • Monday, November 9th the lake level will be held at 910.5 MSL (4.0 feet below the spillway) for 2 weeks.
  • Monday, November 23rd start to refill the lake level until it reaches the winter pool elevation of 913.0 MSL.

The drawdown plan is subject to change depending on weather conditions.

During the months of November through March, Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) will attempt to maintain the lake level at the winter pool of 913.0 MSL.

Real-time lake level information, along with Lake Zumbro hydro updates are available on the RPU web site (www.rpu.org). For additional information regarding the Zumbro Hydroelectric Facility please contact Tony Benson at (507) 280-1534.

Tips for lake ice safety:

Be extremely careful during winter activities that involve Lake Zumbro such as ice fishing, snowmobiling or just walking out on the frozen lake.

Watch the weather and river flow conditions.

Ice thickness and condition can vary greatly. Be very cautious.

Look out for ice heaves and exposed logs and snags.

Be cautious in the vicinity of the dam. De-icing equipment has been installed along the upstream face of the dam resulting in open water and/or thin ice.

Do not proceed past the warning signs and buoys.

About Rochester Public Utilities

As the municipal utility of Rochester, Minn., for more than 110 years, RPU provides high-quality and reliable electricity to over 50,000 customers. Water customers number more than 40,000. RPU continually investigates innovative technologies to help customers realize the best value from the services they receive. Current initiatives include fuel cell research, wind power, and photovoltaic offerings.

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AMWA Recognizes Utility Management Achievement in Water Industry Awards

Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

News Release

Embargoed for Release October 13, 2020                              Contact:           Carolyn Peterson

            peterson@amwa.net

            Antoinette Barber

            barber@amwa.net

            202-331-2820

AMWA Recognizes Utility Management Achievement in Water Industry Awards

Washington, D.C. – The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) honored the exceptional operation and performance of 13 public drinking water systems with its top utility management awards on October 13 at its 2020 Executive Management Conference.

“In an unprecedented year for this nation, these systems are at the forefront of providing innovative solutions to the multiple challenges a global pandemic, extreme weather events, and infrastructure gaps are creating,” said AMWA President Steve Schneider, General Manager of Saint Paul Regional Water Services. “By supplying their communities with clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, these water utilities are helping to safeguard the nation’s health.”

AMWA management awards recognize the exceptional performance of public drinking water utilities where management vision and employee commitment create sustainable utilities producing ample supplies of clean, safe drinking water. The Sustainable Water Utility Management Award spotlights efforts of water utilities implementing long-term and innovative economic, environmental, and social endeavors, while the Platinum Award for Utility Excellence and Gold Award for Utility Performance honor outstanding achievement in implementing the industry standard Attributes of Effective Utility Management.

AMWA awarded the 2020 Sustainable Water Utility Management Award to nine utilities, including the starred second-time winners:

  • Anaheim Public Utilities (California)
  • Charleston Water System (South Carolina)
  • Contra Costa Water District* (California)
  • El Paso Water* (Texas)
  • Greenville Water (South Carolina)
  • KC Water (Missouri)
  • New York City Department of Environmental Protection (New York)
  • Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority (Florida)
  • South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (Connecticut)

AMWA presented three utilities with the 2020 Platinum Award for Utility Excellence:

  • Central Arizona Project (Arizona)
  • Great Lakes Water Authority (Michigan)
  • Houston Water (Texas)

AMWA awarded the 2020 Gold Award for Exceptional Utility Performance to:

  • Rochester Public Utilities (Minnesota)

Sustainable Water Utility Management Award Winners

Anaheim Public Utilities (APU) continues to achieve financial effectiveness by maintaining robust liquidity, minimizing long-term obligation, offering affordable and competitive rates in the face of COVID-19 pandemic challenges and rising water supply costs. APU employs data analytics to optimize decision-making, organizational performance, and capital project investments. The utility invested over $67 million in capital improvement projects to support long-term water system sustainability. APU consistently focuses on assisting customers and partnering with them to help the community prosper. Through rebate and incentive programs, Anaheim also achieved a 30 percent per capita water use reduction in 2020.

Charleston Water System (CWS) established capital planning programs that ensure water and wastewater capacity, fire protection, and environmental and regulatory compliance requirements are fully met. It is the first combined utility in the U.S. registered in conformance with the Environmental Management System standards of ISO 14001. A dedicated source water manager maintains source water infrastructure, works with watershed stakeholders to address water quality and quantity concerns, and develops a source water protection plan. The CWS  low-income assistance initiative supports customers in need through the Palmetto Community Action Partnership, and creation of a Citizens Academy program enhances customer education and engagement.

Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) is a state-wide leader in water affairs with a focus on preserving Delta water quality and developing regional water supply reliability. CCWD is committed to balancing operational expenditures, revenues, and debt service while investing in infrastructure assets; controlling operations and maintenance expenditures, while increasing water quality and customer service levels.  The utility incorporates climate change considerations and resiliency into long-term planning, addressing vulnerabilities and investing in improvements that will increase sustainability. It has made significant investments in water use efficiency projects that have reduced total water use by over 30 percent since the late 1980s.

The El Paso Water (EPWater) strategic plan objectives include strengthening financial viability, improving land and water management, increasing innovative solutions, and strengthening stakeholder partnerships. Its financial management is consistently recognized for its bond ratings, debt service, audits, budgets, and pricing structures. EPWater has developed aquifer storage and recovery, advanced water purification desalination, and water importation projects, which contribute to a diversified water portfolio. Investments in flood control, water conservation, and open space preservation make EPWater a leader in environmental stewardship. The utility engages the community through payment assistance programs to help low-income seniors and low-income families financially impacted by COVID-19.

Greenville Water had the foresight to purchase watersheds in a high rainfall area, construct dams to develop reservoirs at favorable hydraulic gradients, and limit the access to its watersheds, ensuring a sustainable water supply for the next 100 years. The utility maintains a AAA financial rating from all three major rating agencies and a financial plan that supports daily operational needs and meets required debt services. Its asset management program promotes the continuous improvement of business processes, and its business services model optimizes employee efficiencies to benefit customers and billing partners. A robust watershed management plan supports resource management through strategic planning and partnership efforts.

KC Water implements sustainable management using green infrastructure solutions whenever possible as part of a 25-year, $5 billion program to mitigate adverse effects of its combined sewer system. The utility’s aggressive asset management program minimizes the cost and maximizes the benefit of infrastructure investments. KC Water relies on climate studies and other research to drive planning and execution of short-term operations and maintenance and long-term capital improvement programs, serving both immediate needs and generational impact. These initiatives have also saved treatment costs, delayed or avoided additional water and wastewater treatment expansion, and minimized risks to the water supply.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) achieved progress in a broad range of sustainability-related factors, including: receiving a 10-year filtration avoidance determination for drinking water from the EPA in 2017, building the largest green infrastructure program in the country with over 10,000 assets spread across the city, achieving Envision and LEED certifications for multiple projects, and launching innovative and impactful rate payer assistance programs. DEP approaches these achievements with triple bottom line thinking that assesses and seeks to maximize the utility’s priorities of protecting health and the environment, supporting its constituents and communities, and benefitting the economy. 

Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority created a reliable, sustainable, and affordable water supply in southwest Florida and provides the infrastructure for business development and economic growth. Through partnerships the Authority invested in alternative water supply (AWS) and interconnecting the major water supply systems. The utility is a model in AWS development, implementing surface water storage by off-stream reservoirs and aquifer storage and recovery systems. Limiting water withdrawal to occur only during high flow periods provides the sustainability of the downstream estuary and Charlotte Harbor while meeting demands for public water supply.

South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (RWA) is focused on the long-term economic viability of its company, resources, and region. Periodic studies ensure its rates reflect the true cost of water and remain affordable. Internally generated funds finance the capital program and increase discretionary reserves. To preserve and protect the natural environment, RWA has robust land and water management programs, has reduced its energy use using renewable energy sources, and diverts hundreds of tons of treatment residuals from landfill disposal. Its education program provides free, hands-on programs to local schools, and its recreation program provides access to nine recreation areas.

Platinum Award for Utility Excellence Winners

Central Arizona Project (CAP) leads and innovates in all aspects of its business. Through collaboration, CAP ensures resiliency and sustainability of the system, maintains water quality, improves stakeholder understanding and support, and puts customer service in the forefront. Its custom-developed programs and processes contribute to success in employee leadership and development, excellence in infrastructure strategy and performance, and an ever-evolving asset management program. CAP’s well-established financial planning cycle results in top bond ratings and award-winning work.

The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) has been in continuous compliance with state and federal drinking water standards since its 2016 establishment. By optimizing operational efforts, it has experienced two rounds of rating agency upgrades by reaching AA category status in September 2018 and receiving further upgrades in March 2020. Focusing on collaboration and long-term sustainability, it boasts a 90 percent member partner satisfaction. It supports affordable programs and has kept its annual charge increases to less than half of its peers in the Black & Veatch Utility Rate Index. It achieved a systems-total of debt service savings of over $1 billion.

Houston Water provides drinking water and wastewater services to 2.3 million customers. Planning for sustainable, long-term utilities that are more resilient to the effects of climate change and other stressors, it is developing a strategic plan with the city’s stormwater utility using a One Water approach. Its focus on asset management has helped to reduce operational costs and has allowed for development of a risk-based prioritization of preventive maintenance. It actively engages with stakeholders to meet or exceed expectations and has reduced its customer response time by 96,000 days, increasing customer satisfaction by 73 percent.

Gold Award for Exceptional Utility Performance Winner

Rochester Public Utility (RPU) has no water debt obligations and provides one of the lowest water rates in Minnesota. Its investment in mobile technologies and other efficiencies has resulted in more time spent serving customers. Over the past few years, RPU has collaborated with Rochester Public Works to plan joint replacement projects of aging infrastructure. The capital improvement plan includes the top 20 highest risk score water main sections being replaced in the next five years. As part of its sustainability study with state agencies, RPU protects groundwater sources to ensure long-term supply of drinking water while maintaining its precious natural resources.

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The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies is an organization of the largest publicly owned drinking water suppliers in the United States.

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Three Rivers CARES Fund

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020