Columbus Water Work Uses Technology and Pedestrian Methods to Manage its Watershed

Utility team members in a Georgia community explore streams to assess water quality and to look for pipe defects that could create problems.

Columbus Water Work Uses Technology and Pedestrian Methods to Manage its Watershed

Columbus Water Works team members regularly wade upstream in creeks looking for problems such as cracked sewer pipes or erosion that has left pipes unsupported.

Columbus Water Works uses electronic monitoring and other technology to manage its watershed and its water and wastewater treatment, but it also uses more pedestrian methods.

“We find it very beneficial to routinely walk the creeks,” says Vic Burchfield, senior vice president for the Division of Information, Security, Environmental and Meter Services in Columbus, a Georgia city of nearly 200,000. “You have to have a trained eye. It’s like any inspection: You have to know where to look.

“We’re not only inspecting piping. We’re looking for water-quality issues. We also observe the wildlife, such as frogs, turtles and minnows. When you’re walking, you can see how the stream is flowing, and if it looks healthy. That’s also a good indicator.”

The creek walking program was one reason Columbus Water Works won a 2019 Sustainable Utility Award for utility management from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

 Looking for defects

Once a year, the water utility joins with the stormwater utility for a creek-walking event, but the water utility also has a three-person watershed crew that routinely walks creeks known to have issues with sewer pipes that cross them, or other potential problems. They generally walk the creeks during low-flow periods; they work two or three at a time for safety.

Knee-deep in the water, the creek walkers look for pipes that are cracked, for pipes that have been bumped by trees washing downstream during high water, or for erosion that might leave pipes unsupported and vulnerable to cracking. “We generate work orders based on each walk, and our field services team follows up,” says Burchfield.

Walking the creeks is just one way Columbus Water keeps a close watch on the creeks that drain its service area and supply its reservoir. It also has electronic monitors on creeks throughout the region.

The utility pumps an average of 35 mgd from a treatment plant with a capacity of 90 mgd. It serves Muscogee County and sells water to Harris and Talbot counties and the Fort Benning military base.

It also operates one central wastewater treatment plant and two small plants that handle combined sewer overflows in the older part of the city. The source water is the Chattahoochee River on the border between Georgia and Alabama. Georgia Power owns the reservoir.

Constant monitoring

The water works and its regional partners have had a Source Water Assessment Plan in place since 2001 and upgraded in 2018. The SWAP identifies all the sources of waste in the tributaries that feed the river, such as fueling plants or bridges where there is potential for a tanker spill.

“All those vulnerability points are identified upstream in the watershed,” Burchfield says. “We have partnerships with other utilities pulling water from the same reservoir. It’s a common goal to keep that watershed as clean as possible. Ongoing sampling is part of that. We have real-time monitoring probes that measure pH, oxygen and turbidity. We can look at the devices and tell the condition of the water before it gets to the water plant.

“Even as you get down into the city, where we’re below the water plant, that’s where our watershed protection plan kicks in for all tributaries in Columbus that feed into the river that would affect people downstream. That watershed protection plan is really a whole plan that looks at everything that would be affected south of us.”

Financial sustainability

Columbus Water Works has numerous sustainability programs, including on the financial management side. “We really focus hard on financial sustainability,” Burchfield says. “One program is our rate model that predicts out 15 years ahead and establishes a five-year financial plan. It looks at our water usage over the past five years and predicts usage going forward. It also looks at our capital needs. We heavily rely on that rate model to set our rates each year.”

Programs like that help the utility keep a good bond rating so it can borrow at reasonable rates. The utility also has a five-year master plan for its facilities and operations and additional plans that cover IT, facilities, energy and asset management.

“We take the outputs from those plans and we input them into a facilities overall master plan to develop the projects we need to sustain the water works,” Burchfield says.

Grease collection

In another sustainability initiative, the utility captures methane at its wastewater treatment plant and uses it to heat the digesters and to run turbines that generate electricity. Fats, oils and grease added to the digesters boosts methane production and takes care of a pesky waste product.

Area residents help. The utility places grease containers at 49 apartment complexes and 89 commercial facilities. A specially painted truck does the collections. “We set out containers where people can dump their grease every day,” Burchfield says. There are also 13 locations where residents can drop off containers of grease. They are at park entrances and other easily accessible places.

“This is where homeowners can bring their leftover kitchen grease, so they can have a place to put it instead of down the drain,” Burchfield says.

Columbus Water Works has been recycling grease this way since 2011, so it’s not surprising that the sustainability award it won in 2019 was not its first. The utility also won an AMWA sustainability award in 2014.  


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