One-Stop Information Shop

A website created specifically for small water and wastewater systems helps operators quickly find resources on a full range of important topics
One-Stop Information Shop
The team includes, from left, data writer Jeannine Adomaitis, project manager Steve Wilson, data writer Raeann Sheley, data manager James McAuley, and data writer Christina Cornelius. Not pictured: Jennifer Wilson, Reese Taylor, Brittany Simon, and Kacie Dieter.

Hundreds of agencies and organizations publish information of value to clean-water operators — and much of it comes free over the Internet. But how do you find exactly what you need without hunting and pecking online for hours?

That’s especially an issue for operators of small systems, who may not have time for lengthy Web searches. Now there’s a website that helps visitors quickly find the most relevant information for whatever they may need at a given time. is a free resource designed specifically for small-community water and wastewater professionals. It’s housed at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) at the University of Illinois. The ISWS is part of the Prairie Research Institute and is also the home of the Midwest Technology Assistance Center (MTAC), which provided the funding (via the U.S. EPA) to develop the site.

Besides providing an extensive, searchable database of varied resources, the website includes a blog, a weekly e-newsletter, an event calendar, and user forums for exchanging information on current issues or treatment problems.

Visitors will also find information on meeting customer right-to-know requirements and advice on how to talk and share information with customers. The staff is developing information for those who want to learn about careers in water professions. Staff members are on hand to assist operators by phone or email to get them to the right expert, resource, or organization.

Steve Wilson, manager of the website, groundwater hydrologist, and assistant director for research with MTAC, talked about the site in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How did this website come into being?

Wilson: We’re a U.S. EPA grantee and have been for about 12 years. MTAC’s mission is to provide technical and managerial support for small water systems. We went to the EPA with the idea to develop this site with the funding they give us. They thought it was a good idea. We started work in early 2009 and launched the site the next October.

TPO: What is the central idea behind this project?

Wilson: The idea is fairly simple. Small system operators are really busy folks who often don’t have much spare time. Operators in really small systems may have other full-time jobs and run the water or wastewater system on the side. Or they may run the water and wastewater systems and do other things for the community as well. Through this site, we have done all the legwork and have made it easy for them to find information available from some 750 organizations, all in one place.

TPO: How do you define a “small” water or wastewater system?

Wilson: It’s defined by the EPA as a system serving under 10,000 people, or another definition is under 3,300 connections. Our focus isn’t even really on the towns of 10,000, but more so on towns of under 1,000.

TPO: What is the basic structure and approach of this website?

Wilson: Because so many organizations have worthwhile information and resources available online for water and wastewater operators, our aim is to catalog those resources in a database that is easy to filter and search. All information is linked back to the original author or host, and that helps those organizations get their resources out to operators. We link only to information that can be found for free on the Internet, and our calendar displays only events relevant to water and wastewater operators.

TPO: How extensive is this material?

Wilson: The database includes more than 11,000 document summaries in 28 categories. These include videos, CDs, manuals, fact sheets, and much more. The information is easy to find by topic, by type, by state, or by sponsoring organization. We have also listed more than 24,000 training events since the site’s inception.

There are almost 1,000 documents from the EPA alone. If you’ve ever tried to use the EPA website, even folks who work there will tell you how hard it is to find things. That’s inevitable with an organization that big and in charge of that many rules and regulations. We went through their Web page and found all the relevant documents, which are now listed in our database. There’s really a lot of useful material.

TPO: For example?

Wilson: The EPA offers the Check Up program for Small Systems (CUPSS), an asset management software they developed that’s free for download. It helps you set up depreciation schedules. It has a calendar so you can set up when to collect your samples. That and a lot more basic tools for very small systems — say, under 500 connections.

TPO: Who does all the work of maintaining this site?

Wilson: Six University of Illinois students work for me. They all took a crash course in operator basics and terminology. We have a list of organizations, and each student is assigned a specific number of them. They include the WEF Member Associations, the AWWA state sections, every state Rural Water Association, the state regulatory agencies, EPA and other federal agencies.

It also includes the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). They have six regional offices around the country; they do technical assistance and they have information and documents online. It’s meant to be a very comprehensive website.

TPO: How do you keep all this information current?

Wilson: The students go back through the links once or twice a year to check that they are still good and to look for new information. It’s cumbersome, but the only way to make this site useful is if everything works and is timely.

We use a reminder system in our database. When they look at a site, they enter the date. Then, depending on how often the organization typically updates its information, they enter a number of days for receiving a reminder.

TPO: How much of the information relates to drinking water and how much to wastewater?

Wilson: We’re funded through the EPA Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, but in many small communities, it’s the same person or the same group operating both water and wastewater systems. Recently we have focused on adding wastewater resources. Our document search categories include topics such as biosolids, nutrient control, sanitary sewers, wastewater discharges and effluent, water reuse, operations and maintenance, operator certification training, and certification exam preparation.

TPO: What’s an example of how an operator might use the search function?

Wilson: In every state I talk to, the biggest reason operators fail a certification exam is the math. A search under “certification exam preparation” brings up 136 documents. If you go to the keyword filter and type in “math,” you bring up resources like an advanced math study guide from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services. It’s an 88-page handbook.

We’ve added a summary of what each document is, how many pages it is, and who the host is. So operators can look through the list of results without having to go to each document, download it, and review it to decide if it’s what they want.

Now suppose you’re a small-system operator interested in developing an emergency response plan. You can select the category of “water security and emergency response” and retrieve 724 documents. If you add the keyword “emergency response plan,” that narrows it down to 70. Then you can search by document type for “forms and templates,” and you’ve sorted down to 24 documents, all with “emergency response plan” in the title or summary. Now you can easily find documents that will walk you through how to set up your emergency response plan.

TPO: What sort of services do you offer via email or phone?

Wilson: Suppose you’re an operator in Colorado on the western slope of the Rockies, or in some other remote area where all you have is dial-up Internet. To download a 200-page document for printing would take several hours. If you want a document but you don’t have a way to print it, or if it’s in color and you don’t have a color printer, you can call or email us, and if you’re a small-system operator, we’ll print it and mail it to you for free.

TPO: What kind of content do you cover in the blog?

Wilson: We write a blog post every Monday on how to run a water system like a business. It covers topics like financial management, asset management, having an emergency response plan, and other topics that lead to a better-managed system. On Fridays we have an item called “Stuff We Love.” Usually it’s a website or document or something else we found that is really useful for operators.

TPO: What sort of information might visitors get from the e-newsletter?

Wilson: To cite one example, back in March 2011 we had a story on how to map a small water system. Google had come out with a software called Spreadsheet Mapper 2.0. If you have a handheld GPS, it allows you to go out and use this software with GoogleEarth and map all your assets. You don’t need any GIS training — only a handheld GPS unit. It’s a cheap but useful way for operators to at least know where all their valves, manholes and hydrants and things are. We started the year with about 90 newsletter subscribers, and now there are more than 500.

TPO: What are you doing in the career development area?

Wilson: Soon we will have a list of all the operator schools that are available in the country. By operator schools I mean certificate programs. WEF and AWWA have created a website called Work for Water. There you can see two-year and four-year engineering and environmental science programs, but no listings for operator schools.

There are probably no more than 20 operator schools around the country. These are one-year programs or even just one-semester programs to prepare people to become operators. A small system serving 500 people isn’t going to hire a civil engineer who graduated from the University of Illinois. It’s going to be someone who is out of high school and has maybe taken some classes or maybe not.

There’s a big shortage of operators coming, and we want to get more young folks interested in becoming operators. Anyone who gets into water and wastewater today most likely will always have a job.

TPO: What kind of traffic are you seeing on the website?

Wilson: We have been averaging about 800 to 1,000 hits per month. There are only about 43,000 small systems in the country, so the audience is not that huge. All our resources are free. We don’t advertise for anybody. We’re just providing a service.


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