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

EPA’s Technical Assistance Centers
Tapping Higher Education's Expertise

By Mark Kemp-RyeOn Tap Editor

If you were to take a comprehensive tour of any large city’s water plant, you would meet a sizeable staff with a wide variety of jobs: engineers, laboratory analysts, computer experts, operators, customer support representatives, office assistants, maintenance personnel, and more. Even the water utility staff of a small city such as Morgantown, West Virginia—where the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse islocated—includes dozens of people with different areas of expertise.

A small town, by contrast, is lucky to have two or three certified operators on hand. In many communities, one person is responsible for all the system’s activities, from water treatment to billing. And, in some places, one person also plows snow, reads meters, and picks up the garbage, too. Recognizing that small communities can benefit from technical assistance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funded technical assistance centers (TACs) at eight universities around the country. Eventually, there will be 10 such centers. The goal, according to EPA, is for “the TACs and state and federal regulatory agencies [to] work with small water systems to assist them in acquiring and maintaining the technical, managerial, and financial capacity needed to consistently provide safe drinking water and meet the public health protection goals of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Technical Assistance Network Centers Links

The Technical Assistance Centers (TACs) mentioned in this article are linked through a network and a Web site called TACNET. The network strives to “enhance the exchange of information among water treatment professionals.” The site features a descriptive bibliography of all the projects and tools developed by the TACs. For more information, visit the TACNET site at

You many contact the individual technical assistance centers:

ATTAC Program Coordinator
University of Alaska Sitka Campus
1332 Seward Avenue
Sitka, AK 99835
Phone: (907) 747-7756

Midwest Technology Assistance Center
Illinois State Water Survey
2204 Griffith Drive
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 333-9321

Western Kentucky University Technical Assistance Center
Ogden College
1 Big Red Way, EST, Room 437
Bowling Green, KY 42101
Phone: (270) 745-8894

Southeastern Regional Small Public Water System Technology Assistance Center
GeoResources Institute
Mississippi State University
PO Box 9652
Mississippi State, MS 39762-9652
Phone: (662) 325-3295

Missouri Water Resources Research Center
University of Missouri–Columbia
Civil Engineering Department
E1511A Engineering Building East
Columbia, MO 65211
Phone: (573) 882-7564

Outreach Coordinator
Montana Water Center
Montana State University–Bozeman
101 Huffman Building
Bozeman, MT 59717-2690
Phone: (406) 994-6690

New Hampshire
New England Water Treatment Technology Assistance Center
Environmental Research Group
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824
Phone: (603) 862-1407 or (603) 862-1412

Penn State Harrisburg Small Public Water Systems Technology Assistance Center
Science and Technology Building
777 W. Harrisburg Pike
Middletown, PA 17057
Phone: (717) 948-6358

Note: In the future, there will be TACs in California and Maryland.

Technical Assistance to the Rescue
Each of the eight TACs crafts different programs and services, depending on needs in their area. However, they are linked together through TACNET, a Web site providing expertise in several different areas. (See the sidebar.) All TACs apply the resources of their respective universities for technology verification, pilot and field testing of innovative technologies, and training and technical assistance.

“A TAC is an administrative vehicle for mobilizing university resources to help small public water systems meet their many challenges,” says Gretchen Rupp, director of the Montana Water Center at Montana State University. “We keep up-to-date on what these challenges are, figure out which ones are not being met and would benefit from the involvement of university-based expertise, and then design and carry out projects to meet these needs.”

Working With Others
Recognizing that there are several groups working directly with small systems, the TACs focus on larger scale projects. To this end, they have established relationships with several existing organizations, including state rural water associations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, and the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse (NDWC), to name three.

“In Montana, we have a couple of excellent technical-assistance organizations,” says Rupp. “Our TAC does not compete with them—we’d refer you to them. Our focus as a university organization is at the next-higher level: What are the widespread challenges that can best be addressed by university resources, be they engineering research or programming power? We figure our time is best spent on projects that can benefit many systems.”

The Montana TAC is well known for two CDs they’ve developed in recent years. The first, Operator Basics, shows water system personnel how a treatment plant works through a series of fun, yet challenging, activities. Up to 13.6 hours of training can be documented by working through all 11 units in this groundwater training series. A surface water version is being developed.

The second CD is a sanitary survey course. Sanitary Sam, the CD’s host, leads field staff through the procedures of inspecting and evaluating small water systems using interactive animation, games, narration, and video. (Both CDs are available from the NDWC. See the products listing on pages 49 through 53.)
These CDs help provide training and education for system personnel who often can’t travel to attend training sessions. “In Montana and throughout the West, the challenges chiefly flow from physical isolation and limited financial resources,” says Rupp. “To drive to a training workshop takes a whole day each way for many system personnel. When a pump breaks down, a community that is struggling for its very existence can't just ring up the supplier and order a replacement. Retaining well-trained people is very difficult for remote, financially-strapped systems.”

Technology Is Key

Training programs, such as those being developed by the Montana TAC, are a big part of the network’s focus. Another is investigating water treatment technology. “In New Hampshire our focus is on treatment technology,” says Melissa A. Smith, project director for the New England Water Treatment Technology Assistance Center at the University of New Hampshire. “If you have a treatment issue that you believe is applicable to other small water systems, you should contact us directly so we could develop a project plan to include your treatment issue in our TAC grant proposal for funding from the EPA. Following the completion of the project, results would be disseminated so that systems with similar issues can apply what we have learned through completion of the project. Typically the project results will be publicized through conference presentations and proceedings, journal articles, and Web site summaries.

“To assess treatment technologies, we typically run pilot systems which are smaller versions of a specific treatment process,” says Smith. “Water testing is done to compare results between the pilot system and current treatment process, or sometimes several different pilot systems are run side by side in order to make comparisons between the pilot systems.” The New Hampshire TAC is in the midst of several research projects:
• an assessment of the removal of antibiotics in slow sand filtration,
• an evaluation of radioactive contamination in wastewater disposal systems resulting from the disposal of small water system treatment byproducts,
• an evaluation of organic precursor removals by gravel roughing filters,
• an evaluation of corrosion control in small water systems using calcium silicate contactors,
• an assessment of various adsorbent materials for arsenic removal,
• an evaluation of the microbial removal capabilities of riverbank filtration,
• a summary of costing information from existing treatment plants in New Hampshire that use adsorbent materials for arsenic removal,
• costing information for diatomaceous earth filtration units,
• the development of real time, ulatraviolet disinfection performance monitoring techniques, and
• the completion of a Web site providing information about limestone bed contactors and ultraviolet disinfection.

Image Source: Environmental Protection Agency Technical Assistance Network,

A Whole ‘Nother World
Nowhere is the need for regional specialization more apparent than in Alaska. With a huge land area, diverse population, and extreme weather, technical assistance takes on a whole different dimension. “Conditions in Alaska are among the most challenging in the U.S.,” says Nicole Duclos, program coordinator with the Alaska Training and Technical Assistance Center. “Some of the challenges we face include:
• Permafrost: The majority of Alaska’s villages are located in regions of permafrost, where conditions prevent the application of many conventional disposal processes, such as effluent leach fields. In addition, subsurface construction is often impossible. Above ground treatment facilities and piping require complete insulation and heating and often necessitate continuous circulation systems. System failures are much more critical because significant and permanent damage can occur if corrective action is not taken immediately.

• Extreme temperature variations: Seasonal temperatures in northern and interior regions of Alaska can vary as much as 150 degrees. These extremes require continuous monitoring and system operational adjustment.

• Fluctuations in water quality and demand: Most surface water sources, as well as many groundwater sources, contain considerable organic material, described as ‘tundra tea.’ In Southeast Alaska, rain forest streams are subject to large seasonal fluctuations in dissolved organics, while in northern Alaska, wide variations in the concentration of suspended sediments result from seasonal contribution to the surface water from glaciers. Water quality fluctuations are complicated by changing water demand in villages based on seasonal out-migrations associated with subsistence gathering periods. Furthermore, the 10 parts per billion arsenic standard for drinking water seriously impacts small public water systems throughout Alaska.”
According to Duclos, the state has approximately 1,700 federally regulated drinking water systems. Only 21 of these systems serve communities with populations greater than 3,300 people. Of the remaining 1,679 federally regulated systems, 1,540 serve communities with populations of between 25 and 500 people.

In addition to these technical challenges is the reality that the villages are not well connected by roads, English may not be the primary language, telecommunications infrastructure isn’t well developed, and local economies are strapped. Providing assistance in Alaska is difficult, to say the least.

On Tap Editor Mark Kemp-Rye lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with his wife, Laura, and three children, Adrienne, Maxwell, and Josephine.

Meeting Tomorrow’s Needs
While there’s plenty of work to keep the various TACs busy, that doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels. Keeping an eye to the future, they have plans for the Web site. Rupp says, “First, there will be a ‘tools’ project category for things like financial tools and system-evaluation tools. Also, we’ll soon be instituting project-specific online forums. Some of the projects catalogued on the TACNET are very technical; some require specific expertise; some are in early versions where the developers could do with user feedback. Project leaders from all eight TACs will be able to moderate forums on their projects to interact with project clients.”