100 Years of Excellence

Innovative upgrades and operations expertise help a California utility deliver high-quality customer service, while working to conserve water.
100 Years of Excellence

When the South Mesa Water Company turns 100 in November 2012, it will celebrate a number of accomplishments. They include a new office building, an automatic meter reading (AMR) system that improves efficiency and makes operators' lives easier, distribution system upgrades, and a new well. All these improvements help the staff deliver the best quality water to its customers.

"We just got a great report card from the state," says general manager David Armstrong. Upgrades are funded by capital improvement dollars, so the utility doesn't have to raise rates. "Our rates are about as low as it gets out here," says Armstrong. "I'm really proud of our water company."

While infrastructure is important, it's the water company's team that makes it shine. A staff of seven, with many years of experience and a get-it-done attitude, does everything from conservation education and enforcement to water testing, from maintaining wells and pumps to laying pipe.

Their hard work makes sure customers not only have safe, high-quality water, but an abundant supply, at a reasonable cost.

Desert environment

Located between Calimesa and Yucaipa, South Mesa Water
Company is a shareholder-owned mutual water organization governed by a five-member board of directors. The company was established in 1912 as an irrigation water distributor, but it evolved to municipal and industrial water service and finally to domestic service only.

In 1953, the utility moved to its present Calimesa location. It serves about 3,000 customers in Calimesa and parts of Yucaipa — a four-square-mile area. The water comes from eight groundwater recharge wells and is stored in four reservoirs with a total capacity of 4.5 million gallons. In the arid environment, water conservation is important.

"We raised the rates on users who were abusing water," says Armstrong. "Some households were using over 20,000 cubic feet a month, so we came up with a reasonable cutoff number of 3,500 cubic feet bimonthly, and anyone using more than that was charged twice the normal cost for the surplus."

This initiative came about after the state mandated that all water purveyors reduce consumption by 20 percent. "Customers can still use a reasonable amount of water and not go over the limit," says Armstrong.

Detecting and repairing leaks is another way to save water. "The AMR program, implemented in 2009, helps us track that," says Armstrong. "We have two employees in a car, one with a computer printout with a list of residences where the water meter is running constantly. This indicates possible leaks that we need to investigate."

The AMR system, the meter replacements and rate increases on excessive users have all allowed the utility to reduce water usage by 22 percent. The utility also posts conservation tips on its website, in the office reception area, and in customers' water bills.

New tools

The radio-controlled Hot Rod AMR system (Mueller Systems, subsidiary of Mueller Water Products), easily integrated with the utility's 3,000 new meters and has reduced operators' meter reading time from six days per month to four hours. "It pays for itself, since I don't have to take two operators out of the field to manually read meters," says Armstrong. "They can work on other tasks instead."

The utility shopped around for the right AMR system. "Board president George Jorritsma and I looked at several meter options," says Armstrong. "Representatives from Mueller demonstrated the Hot Rod system in the field. We purchased it from Greg Spears of Inland Water Works Supply Company in San Bernardino, who also supplied our meters."

For the first few months, Inland Water Works Supply Company trained SMWC staff by walking through the procedure in the field and showing office staff how to load the data into their computers.

Armstrong says the AMR system has set the stage for other improvements: "We will migrate gradually from old to new. We have a 20-year-old SCADA system, and we're integrating a new one as we move into our new office. We are also upgrading our PC operating system to the latest software."

Doing it all

Besides installing and reading meters, the operations and maintenance team exercises valves, inspects fire hydrants and tests the flow, flushes dead-end hydrants, installs water lines, operates backhoes, performs emergency repairs, marks dig-safe sites, and performs landscape maintenance around wells and reservoirs.

"Our valve program is important," says Armstrong. "Exercising valves sounds kind of mundane — I mean, how many valves do you want to exercise every day? But, if a valve won't shut when you need it to, it creates problems." All valves are numbered, and operators keep records of performed maintenance.

The water company owns a tow-behind valve exercising machine (Wheeler-Rex model 98000). When exercising older valves, operators often choose the manual method to exert more control over torque and limit the risk of stem breakage, Armstrong says.

Operators take weekly water samples to test for total coliform and E. coli. Testing is done at Clinical Laboratory of San Bernardino. "Our water has always met quality requirements," says Armstrong. "We're the first stop after the mountains for the water supply, which is why the water is so good. The only thing we add is 0.2 ppm of chlorine."

Armstrong has been with the utility for 11 years and holds California Grade 3 water distribution (D3) and Grade 2 water treatment (T2) licenses. He is a member of the American Water Works Association, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), the California Rural Water Association (CRWA), the Upper Santa Ana Water Resources Association, and Beaumont Basin Watermaster. Other team members are:

Dave Fries, senior system operator/maintenance, D3/T2 licenses, AWWA Competent Person certification, 22 years at the plant.

Dale Guzzetta, office supervisor/board secretary, 24 years.

Robert Hoke, foreman/backhoe operator/maintenance, 47 years.

Jeff Jones, water quality control operator/maintenance, D2/T1 licenses, three years.

Rich McKenzie, cross-connection control specialist/backhoe operator/maintenance, D2/T2 licenses, backflow prevention device tester certification, AWWA Competent Person certification, four years.

Gina Sanchez, water quality control administrator/office administration, two years.

Fries, Hoke, Jones and McKenzie also hold cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), air valve/surge protection and American Traffic Safety Services Association traffic control flagger certifications. "No one person is above or below doing any job in the field, and that is key to the crew all working well together," says Armstrong.

High expertise

Field employees are on call one week a month, and that includes 24-hour SCADA monitoring. "They can tap into the SCADA system from their home to respond to an alarm or a customer call," says Armstrong. "Although they could manually shut off a well or booster pump with the SCADA, I would rather have them go into the field and check it out in person to make sure that the equipment is properly shut down."

Preventive maintenance takes much of the team's time and is a skill most of them have learned on the job. Outside training and seminars keep them abreast of the latest equipment and technologies. Weekly safety training has also paid off: "We haven't had an injury in 10 years," says Armstrong.

The utility has saved money by doing maintenance work in-house. "Rich McKenzie came to us with a lot of experience laying pipe and he's really skilled at digging," says Armstrong. "He knows all the safety practices and makes sure the guys put on their hardhats and reflective vests."

McKenzie also inspects backflow prevention devices to make sure there is no contamination to the lines. The utility requires all commercial, industrial and residential properties with livestock to install and maintain backflow prevention devices.

Meanwhile, field foreman Hoke "has the whole system in his head from 47 years with the company," says Armstrong. "He doesn't go down into the holes anymore. The guys won't let him." Fries inspects, operates and maintains the company's equipment and reservoirs, including daily inspection of all online pumps and boosters.

Future growth

After 57 years in the same building, the water company completed a new 3,200-square-foot office building in April 2012. "The larger building will give us all the tools to operate for the future," says Armstrong. Besides office space, the building will house an electronics room, a vault for sensitive documents, and a board room for shareholder meetings that until now have been held offsite.

Armstrong doesn't foresee much population growth, except for maybe a few hundred new homes. The city is planning a new park, and Armstrong hopes it will be drought-proof, with plants that can withstand dry conditions. The utility recently built a 1,000-foot-deep well to serve the current population. "We have some aging wells and are always looking for a way to boost our efficiency," Armstrong says.

Other plans include a mile of new lines to transport water to the reservoirs, and perhaps a 2-million-gallon reservoir in a few years. "Another reservoir will give us twice the storage capacity in our largest pressure zone, allowing us to pump the wells longer during off-peak hours to reduce electrical cost," says Armstrong.

For now, employees are excited about the 100-year anniversary. Says Armstrong, "We're planning an open house to celebrate, and we're inviting shareholders and the public."


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