Time to Think

Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority used a slowdown in demand as an opportunity to reflect and plan. The results have been outstanding.
Time to Think

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The Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority recently received a Platinum Award for Utility Excellence from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies — and its record of performance has been solid gold.

While the recession hit water utilities hard, the BJWSA, based in Okatie, S.C., took advantage of the downturn to re-focus its priorities and plan for the future. “The economy tanked, growth stalled, we experienced above-average rainfall, and customer demand for water decreased dramatically,” explains BJWSA General Manager Ken Griffin.

The result was a substantial reduction in revenues. And yet, by using a strategic business planning process, coupled with technology innovations, the authority has maintained its stable assets and service levels while protecting its excellent bond rating and holding onto its skilled employees — all without any unplanned rate increases.

Diverse customer base

The BJWSA provides drinking water to about 175,000 people in Beaufort and Jasper counties in the southeastern corner of South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from Georgia. The 900-square-mile service area includes the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, several other military bases, and Hilton Head Island-area retirement communities.

“The authority was founded in 1954 by the state legislature,” says Griffin. “This area had exhausted the supply of good groundwater and was facing saltwater intrusion in some areas. Our mission was to bring surface water from the Savannah River to the area, treat it, and provide high-quality drinking water to the Marine base and the other communities in the region.”

Two water treatment facilities, Chelsea and Purrysburg, provide finished water to retail and wholesale customers. The plants each produce an average of 10 mgd, using similar treatment trains. Raw water from the river flows through a man-made channel to a pumping station that raises it 26 feet above the river level. From there, it flows by gravity through a half-mile channel to a 180-million-gallon reservoir, which in turn feeds the two treatment plants.

Both plants add lime for pH adjustment and alum for flocculation in rapid-mix tanks. Flocculated solids settle out in a pair of sedimentation basins before the water passes through inclined plate settlers. Solids are swept off the bottom of the settlers, while clear water flows over the weirs and into a holding pond. A gravity-flow, dual-media filtration system of sand and anthracite provides final polishing. The water is disinfected with a chlorine solution generated on site before release to the distribution system.

A state-of-the-art SCADA system provides complete monitoring and control of all plant processes. During summer peak-demand times, the utility can draw raw water from any of three groundwater wells in the district. Alum sludge and filter backwash pass to a settling pond, which overflows back into the intake canal. Periodically, the lagoons are dredged and the settled solids are dried and hauled to landfill.

Changing directions

While the BJWSA has provided water and wastewater services for more than 50 years, it faced perhaps its biggest challenge as the economy nose-dived in 2008. The planning process came to the rescue. “It’s an ongoing, cyclical process involving a 10-year cycle, a three-year cycle, and annual and monthly cycles,” Griffin says.

Using customized models, the authority tests various assumptions about growth, changes, capital improvements, replacement needs and the like over a 10-year period and develops rate structures based on those assumptions. Rates are set for a three-year period, and the capital improvement and operating budgets are derived from the revenue projections.

The authority takes a conservative approach, making sure that revenues are sufficient to recover total cash needs for the future three-year period. “This process has been developed and refined over several years and works well for us,” Griffin says. “It involves all of the management staff and members of the board. At key appropriate intervals, the public and our community stakeholders are invited to participate. We’ve been able to hold rates to a 17 percent increase. We feel the results speak for themselves.”

Adequate supply

If the planning process keeps the authority prepared for the future, so does its approach to water supply. In the off-peak months of winter, BJWSA stores up to 200 million gallons of treated water in an innovative storage and recovery system and then can draw from it during summer.

The authority operates three strategically located storage and recovery areas where treated water is pumped into the underlying Upper Floridian Aquifer. The stored water is metered, and the data is assimilated into the SCADA system.

BJWSA is the first utility in South Carolina to use this technology. “The approach was tried unsuccessfully in Florida,” Griffin says. “The key is that the water you take out of storage needs to be of the same quality as the water you put in.” In some cases, the approach doesn’t work because local geology or oxygenation during pumping changes the water quality. “It has worked well here because of the geology we have and the fact that we’re pushing the envelope,” he says.

The arrangement has also saved considerably on capital outlays. Griffin estimates that the storage and recovery areas cost $3.5 million to $5 million total, much less than the cost of comparable above-ground storage facilities: “It represents a very efficient use of capital.”

The storage and recovery system is part of the authority’s Integrated Water Resources Plan, developed in 2008-2010. “Both our surface water and our groundwater sources are or have been under stress, and doubts have been raised about their long term sustainability,” explains Griffin. Groundwater near the coastal areas is being degraded by saltwater intrusion, and the two recent droughts (1998-2002 and 2006-2008) caused dramatic drops in the levels of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs on the Savannah River.

These developments, plus heavy use of treated water for irrigation and population growth projections in the next 30 years, led the authority to develop the plan. It includes reducing per capita water demand, especially in peak periods; protecting the Savannah River, the region’s primary water source; and increasing use of reclaimed water from the authority’s wastewater treatment plants for commercial and domestic irrigation.

The authority now has one large subdivision served by a “third pipe” reclaimed water system — the first in the state permitted for unrestricted (nonpotable) reuse. The plan calls for a number of initiatives to encourage the installation of reclaimed water irrigation systems in new subdivisions.

Operating efficiency

Innovations in technology and operations have also helped BJWSA survive lean times and prepare for future expansion. “There are a number of things we are proud of,” says Griffin. “In terms of surface area, we are the largest utility in the country in the use of SCADA technology. While we have a good-sized population, it’s not that many relative to our 900-square-mile service area. It’s a far-flung, relatively non-dense infrastructure. We rely on SCADA and well-trained personnel to interpret and understand the data, and dispatch crews only when necessary.”

The SCADA system is the nerve center of the operations and is critical to the authority’s comprehensive asset management and maintenance management plans. An asset inventory is tied to the utility’s GIS, which maintains digitized as-built drawings on all assets and monitors the physical condition and operating efficiency of all assets. The system helps the staff develop operations and capital budgets and track progress on all construction projects.

“We’re continuing to refine our asset management system,” says Griffin. “We’re moving to merge it with our workforce mobility system. When our customer service group gets a call about a problem with one of our wells, or a leak, they can immediately communicate electronically with our dispatchers and crews and let them know everything they need to know about that asset — repairs needed and other utilities in the area, for example.”

The maintenance records can be updated, as well. All assets have been inventoried and entered into a computerized maintenance management system. Assets are detailed down to their component parts, and maintenance schedules and work orders are produced daily, weekly and monthly. Griffin reports that during fiscal year 2011, the authority accomplished 16,650 hours of planned programmed maintenance and only 3,920 hours of emergency maintenance.

The authority has also incorporated state-of-the-art drive-by meter reading, which records usage and relays the information to the customer service department for billing. The team is also developing a comprehensive management dashboard system to contain data that will keep management abreast of asset management, costs, maintenance and other parameters. Once again, Griffin says, the authority used the recent slow-growth period to make these improvements.

People power

In the end, Griffin credits people for the success of the authority’s programs and systems. “Customer service is a critical priority,” he says. While the customer service department has primary responsibility for pleasing customers, every employee needs to provide excellent service. “We judge the quality of the customer service operation with three criteria: timeliness, effectiveness and courtesy,” he continues. “Of the three, timeliness is the most significant challenge.”

The authority maintains regular communications and training programs for all employees. “We have email access to every single person on our staff,” Griffin says. “It’s a wonderful and effective way to communicate. We have a well-thought-out compensation program, with career ladders for most positions, and we encourage and provide training to our staff, enabling them to qualify for higher license classifications.”

Griffin points with pride to the authority’s record of attracting highly qualified employees to its ranks, and the stability of its workforce: Team members average more than 15 years of service.

“We seek to hire qualified employees,” he says, “and to keep them throughout their careers.”
 



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