National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

Get the Most out of a Drinking Water Project

by Chain-Wen Wang, Ed.D.
NDWC Contributing Writer


Two drinking water issues everyone agrees upon are the need for enduring drinking water infrastructure, and that there’s never enough money to go around.

Drinking water systems will always need to repair and replace water treatment facilities and distribution pipes, and communities are always looking for money to make new construction or repairs happen. So, it’s important for communities, especially small communities, to make the most of any investment so that they can ensure safe drinking water for their residents

Most small utilities will need to hire external experts, such as a consulting engineer, attorney, or other drinking water professional, to help them with new construction or upgrade projects. But the many different aspects to drinking water projects can make getting the project off the ground tricky. Community leaders need to know what they can do to produce the best results.

According to the experts, three fundamental steps can point a community in the right direction and help identify roles once others are involved in the project:

1. Identify all the players,
2. understand each player’s role and responsibility, and
3. work as a team.

Once a community takes these steps, it can then work toward a common goal with everyone involved. The ultimate goal should always be to find the best solution for the community’s drinking water system problems.

The local decision maker, the consulting engineer, attorney, regulator, and the funding agencies make up the team. However, two other players who will provide crucial contributions to the project are the current operator and the technical assistance provider. The number of people involved in any project will vary from community to community and from project to project. So it’s up to the lead player—the local decision makers—to decide who should be involved.

Local Decision makers and Their Responsibilities
The local decision maker may be the mayor, city manager, utility manager, superintendent, a water board member, or a council chairperson. This person is probably the most important player in the project. Again, this local decision maker is the “lead” player.

Regardless of what the decision maker’s official title is or if more than one person plays the role, the primary responsibility remains the same—to make the best and wisest decisions on behalf of the community.

How is this best accomplished? Ellen G. Miller, a Kansas-based private consultant, states that the first and most important detail is to have a sense of ownership and to understand what responsibilities come with the ownership. Having a sense of ownership means that the town and its representatives should feel like they own the water system.

According to Miller and Elmer Ronnebaum, in their book Getting Results from Your Experts: Engineers, Attorneys & More, one of the books in the Water Board Bible series, ownership attaches legal and financial responsibilities to the project and because of that ownership, the local decision maker must:

1. Make decisions for which the community will pay over many years;
2. Make decisions that shape the community’s public health, safety, and economic strength;
3. Read, understand, and sign documents, specifications, and contracts. If this job is performed poorly, the result may be lawsuits, costly overruns, and shoddy or inappropriate facilities; and
4. Understand the liabilities for grievances and lawsuits in personnel matters.

To safeguard the town leaders’ responsibilities for a construction project, Miller and Ronnebaum recommend the following steps:

1. Know why your community needs the project.
2. Know what your system needs.
3. Do your homework. Make sure your system has all the necessary documents for the project.
4. Select the best team of experts.
5. Double check all written documents concerning funds.
6. Protect customers from service disruptions.
7. Sign documents with caution.
8. Assign your own inspector.

“Prioritize your community’s needs,” says one state regulator, agreeing with Miller and Ronnebaum’s recommended steps. “If you know the priorities, let’s say, whether to have safe drinking water for the community or to fix that stretch of highway on the other side of the town, then you know what decision should be made,” the regulator explains. “Unfortunately, safe drinking water does not always make it to the top of the priority needs of a community.”

What if the local decision maker needs to repair or replace the community’s drinking water system, but does not know exactly what the project requires?

“Admit your knowledge is limited.” says Larry Rader, a self-employed environmental consultant, “If you don’t have enough knowledge about drinking water-related ‘stuff,’ admit it and ask someone else who does.

“Get the operator(s) involved from the beginning,” Rader emphasizes. “Who knows more about your community’s drinking water than your operator? They are the ones who deal with your drinking water day-in and day-out. They know all the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the plant. If you keep them out of the picture, how will you ever know anything about what’s going on with your drinking water?”

Find the Information You Need
If you don’t have the expertise, there are resources. “Technical assistance providers are excellent resources for small communities,” says Doug Skeen, training manager for West Virginia Rural Water Association (WVRWA).

“We’ve found that many newly appointed PSD (public service district) board members and newly elected city council members aren’t always familiar with technical assistance agencies like WVRWA, and we work hard to educate these officials on who we are and that we provide services free of charge anywhere in the state. Our staff is committed to helping rural water systems and wastewater boards, and staff members find answers for difficult problems.

“We know and understand the changing list of regulatory requirements and we have experience in various methods and techniques to help systems achieve compliance,” he continues. “Our staff deals with these situations daily and as a result, they know what will work best at a particular facility, based in part on our experiences at other locations. We share the benefits of that knowledge. There is no substitute for experience.

“Calvin Hatfield, our management support technician, advises systems of the needed planning and research, and the filing and notification requirements if a system is planning an infrastructure project. Hatfield also provides information about available funding sources and the entire RFQ (request for qualifications) process that the state code requires.

“The staff at WVRWA is trained in knowing how to maximize dollars and help systems overcome a scarcity of resources. Not only that—our employees enjoy lending assistance. We want rural officials across West Virginia to know that WVRWA is here to help.”

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) employs technical assistance specialists in almost all 50 states. Rural Utilities Service funds NRWA and may be able to point you in the direction of your local Rural Water Association.

Where do you go from here?
Once the local decision maker knows what kind of project the community’s drinking water system needs, it’s time to select the other players for the project. Again, this task is one of the decision maker’s responsibilities.

Miller and Ronnebaum provide a list of items for consideration in their publication. Items they discuss in detail include price, hiring grant writers, funding options, legal issues, setting expectations, choosing the right experts, contracts and key documents, project management, and customer communication.
At times, it seems overwhelming for local decision makers to merely hear the list of items they need to consider and for which they are responsible. However, Rader emphasizes that it does not have to be a difficult job if the town leader knows where to get help—from the operator and the technical assistance provider.

One of the most common problems a local decision maker encounters when handling environmental projects in the small community is the failure to understand of their own responsibilities. It’s possible that a misunderstanding can lead to conflicts within the community, if not just among the project team. It may also lead to legal problems if something goes wrong with the project.
“Know what your responsibilities are,” says David Pask, senior engineering scientist at the National Environmental Services Center (NESC), echoing Miller’s point. “Make sure you know who you hire and what you hire them to do.”

Miller agrees. She points out that in some cases, communities make the consulting engineer responsible for too many roles, including some that the system owner should perform, such as project management and recordkeeping. In certain cases, the town leader is unable, unaware, or unwilling to take charge of the project. But this approach leaves these responsibilities to the engineer by default.

She also points out that in a situation where town leader does not fully understand his or her responsibilities, some engineers take advantage and over-design the project, leaving the community with a system that is too expensive or difficult to operate and maintain.

Again, the trouble can be prevented if the local decision maker understands and fulfills his or her role and responsibilities.

Miller and Ronnebaum provide a seven-stage process for evaluating proposals from consulting engineers:

1. Weed out the rejects. Use a housekeeping form to check “Yes” or “No” concerning items, such as:

• Did the proposal meet the deadline?
• Did the company include the required number of copies?
• Did they affix any required labels properly?

If you answer “No” to any items, reject the proposal and send the company a written statement giving reasons for the rejection.

2. Assemble your tools, such as an RFQ evaluation form, RFP (request for proposals) evaluation form, and summary rating sheet.
3. Review proposals. Have each governing body member or participating staff member review and read all proposals to save time prior to meeting to discuss proposals.
4. Discuss proposals. Have a meeting to discuss all evaluations and proposals in detail to reach a decision.
5. Contact references and other clients. Especially contact other clients that the prospective engineers have served within the past three or four years who bought systems similar to the one your community proposes.
6. Interview. Prepare a list of questions to guide the interview.
7. Negotiate the contents of the project.

NESC’s Pask concurs with these steps. “Check the company’s history carefully. Make sure they have designed or worked on at least a few projects similar to the one your community is seeking.

“And, make sure the person who makes the sales pitch to you and your community is the same person who will do the design and work with you the whole way through,” he cautions.
“Personally, I would not hire any engineer who does not have five years of experience operating and maintaining a small system,” says one state regulator.

“Two years minimum,” Pask says, quantifying his ideal engineer for small community drinking water projects.

“The more actual operating and maintaining experience the better,” Rader adds.

What are the decision makers' responsibilities?

1. Carry out rules and regulations;
2. Ensure compliance with all applicable federal and state laws and local ordinances;
3. Conduct business only as a board;
4. See that all records, minutes, and notices are created, maintained, and made available according to federal and state laws;
5. Exercise rights and powers for, and on behalf of, others with diligence and care;
6. Ensure that your utility receives, records, and spends funds in accordance with modern accounting, purchasing, and record-keeping standards; and
7. Assure that your utility’s revenue covers operations and maintenance plus debt service plus reserves (check your bond/loan covenants).

Source: Miller and Ronnebaum, 1998.

Hired Experts and Their Responsibilities
The second group of players in the small community drinking water project is the hired experts. This group includes consultants engineers in most cases), attorneys, grant writers, and contractors. These hired experts’ responsibilities are basically as each title suggests, except that individual projects determine the consultant or engineer’s roles.

“Know your clients and their needs,” Pask recommends. “Talk to the operator. Get as much information as possible before you even begin thinking about designing anything.” He confirms Rader’s view as to what an important asset the operator can be to the community.

“Keep the operator in the loop the whole way through,” Rader emphasizes. “They are the ones who are going to do the actual operating and running of the plant. Listen to what they have to say, and let them know what (kind of system) they are getting. It will save a lot of trouble later. Especially if it’s a completely different type of treatment system from before; they need to know about it ahead of time and get proper training for it.”

Miller observes that: “a consulting engineer who is willing to develop an understanding of the community and to tailor their services to meet the needs will have the edge over others who are competing for the project.”

Rader agrees and emphasizes how importance is for consulting engineers to treat each community as a unique entity with its own special needs and identity. According to Rader, “a one-size-fits-all solution” does not exist in drinking water treatment.

“Nothing turns people off faster than talking down to them,” Rader says.

“Your objective is to get the job,” note the developers of the training curriculum, Pieces of the Small Community Puzzle: Working Effectively in Small Communities on Environmental Projects, so you better show them (the small community) some respect. “Explain and discuss technical matters but with less technical language. It will increase the community’s comfort level with you and the project you propose.”

Once the consulting engineer learns what the community’s needs are, his or her main responsibility is “to find the most economical solution to the small community’s drinking water problem.”

According to Pask, there are several things the engineer needs to consider:

• the capital cost versus the operating cost;
• the technical level of operation; and
• evaluate the solution objectively.

“They’re all tied together,” he explains. “You have to figure out what the community wants versus what it needs, and put that right next to what it can afford. To figure out what they can afford, you have to consider not just how much it will take to build the plant, but also how much it will cost to operate and maintain it in the long run and also whether the operator’s technical level matches the solution you are considering bringing to the community. And, you have to do all of this objectively.”

The best engineer a small community can hire, Pask says, “is the one who can fulfill the responsibility of finding the most economical solution for the community.”

A word of caution, however, is that the consulting engineer should be honest with the community about what it can expect in terms of timeline, cost, and involvement. This caution ties back to the local decision maker’s responsibilities—if everyone knows who is responsible for what, it decreases the possibility of problems down the road.

Rader further cautions consulting engineers: “Do not make the final decision for the community. Your job, as a consulting engineer, is to present the community with the information and the best possible solutions, according to your professional judgment.”

One success story is the new drinking water system construction project at Summersville, West Virginia. “They (the consulting engineers) came to all our meetings,” says Steve Acree, the chief operator of the Summersville system. He praises the consulting firm with whom he is currently working on constructing the new plant.

“They came, listened to what we had to say, and told us everything we wanted to know,” Acree says. “We are very comfortable with them. The engineer also talks to me on a regular basis on the phone, if not in person.”

At the Summersville project, the town’s local leaders involved Acree from the first day of the project. They consulted him on all technical decisions regarding the new treatment plant. In fact, since Acree became the chief operator of the plant 10 years ago, the firm has been consulting him about all the town’s drinking water issues.

Because of support from local decision makers, Acree, his town’s decision makers, and the engineering firm developed a great trust and a deep sense of team mentality.

“I am lucky! I am happy to go to work everyday,” Acree concludes.

Regulators and Their Responsibilities

The third player in the small community drinking water project is the regulator, which may be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the state department of health, natural resources, or water quality. The regulator’s responsibility, in addition to monitoring communities to ensure that they comply with drinking water regulations, is to require a community to correct environmental or public safety problems and to monitor a project to ensure it meets legal and public safety requirements.

“It’s their job to step in when a community does not have sufficient technical knowledge or expertise to make a decision for itself,” Pask says.

“The design engineer, the operator, and an engineer from the state health department (the regulator) should discuss the proposed design before the plan is finalized,” Rader says. The state regulator is responsible for reviewing the design and granting a permit.

“We review the design plan submitted, check to see if it meets all the required standards,” one state regulator says. “We make comments on the plan and send it over to the main office in the capitol for a final decision. They then grant or deny the permit.” State regulators also must conduct a site inspection while reviewing the plan.

If the regulator catches any design mistakes while reviewing the plan or during a discussion with the operator or the engineer, it can save the community a tremendous amount of trouble later on, as well as making his or her own job easier.

“It’s easier to fix treatment problems due to operating errors than to fix treatment plant design mistakes,” Rader said. “When there’s a lot of money at a stake, a small community can’t afford any casual mistakes. It’s the responsibility of everyone involved in the process to minimize the mistakes.”

Funding Agencies and Their Responsibilities
Another vital player in the project is the funding agency. The funding sources for small community drinking water system projects vary. Funding can be loans or grants from Rural Development administrations, Community Development Block Grants, state revolving fund loans, or private lending institutions.

In addition to providing the financial backing to the small community for a project, funding agencies are responsible for setting priorities, guidelines, terms, and limits for distributing funds under their jurisdiction.

Most funding agencies have very specific requirements and guides for obtaining funds. Again, it’s the responsibility of the local decision maker and the consulting engineer, as well as the regulator and all the other players, such as the attorney, technical assistance providers, and grant writers, involved in the project to work together to make the wisest decision about how to finance the project.

Guard Your Investment
As previously stated, it’s very important for small communities to get the most out of their investment to provide safe drinking water. The best way to do so is to identify the players, understand their responsibilities, and work as a team.

Many aspects related to drinking water projects have not been discussed, such as legal issues, contract negotiations, and project management. However, a number of sources provide excellent and detailed information, such as EPA, the American Water Works Association, state rural water associations, Rural Community Assistance Programs, the Water Board Bible series by the Kansas Rural Water Association, On Tap magazine, and several training curricula that the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities developed.

For more information, call the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse at (304) 293-4191..


American Water Works Association (AWWA) 2001. Dawn of the Replacement Era: Reinvesting in Drinking Water Infrastructure. Denver, CO: AWWA.

Miller, E. G. & E. Ronnebaum. 1998. “Getting Results from Your Experts: Engineers, Attorneys, and More.” Water Board Bible, Volume Five. Kansas City, MO: Kansas Rural Water Association.

National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities. 1994. Pieces of the Small Community Puzzle: Working Effectively in Small Communities on Environmental Projects: A Guide for Consulting Engineers. Morgantown, WV: NETCSC.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2001. 1999 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey Report. Washington, D.C.: EPA.

About the Author

Chain-Wen Wang holds a PH.D. in technology education from West Virginia University and operates an environmental consulting business specializing in drinking water, wastewater, and stream water quality issues.