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Water Treatment: Identifying challenges facing today's smaller water systems

October 2, 2016  

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Canada’s water and wastewater infrastructure is aging, manifesting with more severe signs of strain within small water systems — that being, systems that serve less than 500 people.

Most of Canada’s water systems are generally underfunded, and there is a lack of understanding of true cost of system ownership among people. In the case of small systems, they face additional challenge of often lacking the economies of scale to fund improvements because there are fewer people to share the fixed costs of system construction and ownership. This can equate to a requirement of higher per capita contribution by people.

At the same time, people living in rural areas served by small water systems generally do not have to pay higher municipal taxes, as their infrastructure needs are private. So it becomes increasingly difficult to convince these people that they must make adequate contributions to efficiently and effectively manage their systems. Canadians often perceive water to be free, and are generally opposed to paying high water and sewer rates.

This is seen in municipal, as well as private, systems, and does not begin to address the high cost of storage, conveyance and treatment to ensure our country has some of the highest health standards in the world. To top it off, small system owners and operators generally do not understand the requirements of proper maintenance beyond the regulatory requirements of proof of potability.

A lack of understanding on system neglect by owners thus allows these small water systems to reach a state where a major repair or replacement is required. It can be challenging for small water systems to afford and retain an adequately trained operator. Without a well-trained operator who understands the needs of the water system, it is a challenge to maintain the system effectively.

Through sharing of trained operators, and offsetting this with improved monitoring equipment from as simple as an alarm on a failed system, there can be reduced operating costs. In B.C., the BC Water & Waste Association (BCWWA) is working with the provincial government to provide training and support to small systems and looking to improve the understanding and provide training in operations.

Regulatory requirements are same for all sizes of potable water systems. This makes it challenging for small water systems, with limited resources to meet all the requirements.

In B.C., the Drinking Water Protection Act specifies that all water supply systems must provide potable water and must meet the requirements established by the Drinking Water Protection Regulation and additional requirements specified in the construction and operating permit.

For small sewage systems with combined flow up to 22.7 m3/day (5,000 Imp gallons), the wastewater systems must meet the requirements of Sewerage System Regulation (SSR) of the Public Health Act in BC. The SSR lays out construction and maintenance requirements for these systems to protect human and environmental. For larger systems with flows greater than 22.7 m3/day (5,000 Imp gallons), the requirements of Municipal Wastewater Regulation (MWR) must be met for construction and operation of the system. The requirements of MWR are onerous for small systems as significant capital and operational budgets are required.

Small systems generally meet the regulations when they are constructed. However, there is often little definition in the scope of an effective system. The difference in equipment used can result in earlier maintenance and replacement costs. Therefore, it is important for the end users to understand the system they are being provided with, and to interact via ongoing maintenance so they can meet higher standards — sometimes referred to as a municipal standard, as opposed to residential or commercial standard.

It is a losing proposition when a system’s end user is unaware of the differences and relies on initial capital cost rather than life cycle costs in accepting a system. Is there an easy answer to mitigate the issues of small water systems? How do we get from the current state to the desired state? What tools should the water system owners employ to create and maintain sustainable utilities? In many small water systems, it is anticipated that the desired future situation will involve the implementation of applicable financial Best Management Practices (BMPs).

There are BMPs available that have been developed specifically for application to smaller utilities in B.C, and are fully applicable in other provinces and U.S. states. The development of these BMPs has been sponsored by B.C. government ministries and the Union of BC Municipalities.

Application of the relevant BMPs will enable water systems to:
• Develop water rates that reflects the true cost of service
• Justify water rates to the users
• Prepare realistic budgets for current and future upgrades
• Propose reasonable timelines for compliance.

Through the use of these guidance documents, end users can obtain a better understanding of their respective systems; recognize the costs associated with operating, maintaining and replacing the infrastructure; seek alternative solutions to handing off a failing system to local government; and taking control of improving their system with local consultants and contractors to have a reliable and robust system at a lowest cost possible. — With files from Madhu Mittal

About the author: Mike Seymour has more than 25 years’ experience in water and wastewater treatment for small decentralized systems throughout B.C. He is currently involved with the BC Water and Waste Association. Seymour is also the principal with MSR Solutions Inc. in Victoria. He can be reached at 250.479.5164.