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Videoconferences Provide Solution to Training Challenges

For Small Water Systems in Rural Nevada

Crystel Montecinos, Administrative Assistant, Department of Environmental and Resource Sciences, University of Nevada, Reno.

Mark Walker, Associate Professor and State Extension Water Specialist, Department
of Environmental and Resource Sciences, University of Nevada, Reno.

Adele Basham, Supervisor, Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund Program, Nevada State Bureau of Health Protection Services.

Cliff Lawson, Staff II Associate Engineer, Public Health Engineering, Nevada State Bureau of Health Protection Services

Philip Walsack, Rural Development Specialist, Rural Community Assistance Corporation

Debra Kaye, P.E., Water Treatment and Distribution Operations Manager, Truckee Meadows Water Authority

Robert Foerster, Circuit Rider, Nevada Rural Water Association

Photos by Mark Walker

Nevada—twin oceans of sagebrush and sky. A person can drive for hours here without seeing so much as a jackrabbit. Small communities are relatively isolated in this state, which covers 110,540 square miles and has a population of approximately two million people. Drinking water system characteristics show this isolation: 79 percent of the population is served by 261 public water systems; and 88 percent of the population lives in three metropolitan areas: Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City.

Of these metropolitan areas, 86 percent of the population served by public water supplies receives water from five major systems in Reno and Las Vegas. (See figure 1.) The remaining 14 percent are served by 256 public water systems.

Using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifications of water systems by size, 234 of Nevada’s public water systems (90 percent) are small or very small systems (very small water systems serve 25-500 people, small water systems serve 501-3,300). Among very small systems, 62 percent in Nevada serve fewer than 100 people. (See figure 2.) This unique profile of small and very small systems spread across great distances creates a challenge when it comes to providing education and training for operator certification.

In a similar analysis of rural and remote water systems in Pennsylvania, Yuefeng Xie, associate professor of environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University–Harrisburg, reported that “operators are unable to attend (classes) because of inconvenient training locations, inflexible schedules, or the technical level of the programs.” For some water supply operators in Nevada, it may be as much as a six-hour drive to reach a community large enough to supply new pumps, valves, or chemicals. The same is true for education.

About the Photo: Larger than 116 nations in land area, Nevada—with a population of two million spread over more than 110,000 square miles—presents unique challenges to those providing water operator training.

The Challenges of Distance and Limited Resources
The 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments require that operators of all community and non-transient, non-community water systems be certified.

To be eligible for certification, operators must have at least six months of documented experience. Those wishing to maintain or renew certification must show proof of having attended educational programs, which are reported as contact hours. Contact hours are actual classroom or lecture hours spent in a state-approved program.To maintain certification Grade 1 and 2, operators must have a minimum of five contact hours per two-year renewal cycle. Operators with Grade 3 or 4 certification need 10 contact hours every two years.

Finding the resources for continuing education and certification to meet federal and state requirements can be costly and time-consuming. For most small systems, the expense of losing workdays plus travel costs can be a profound burden. In 1999, the Nevada State Health Division’s Bureau of Health Protection Services conducted a survey of operator opinions and preferences about training. Respondents said that they decide to attend classes based on the content or subject matter, availability of continuing education credit, and distance of travel. According to Cliff Lawson, staff II associate engineer with the Nevada State Bureau of Health Protection Services, most respondents were willing to travel “more than 100 miles for training and prefer to finish training in a day or less.”

Since 1999, a multi-agency and multidisciplinary partnership—including the University of Nevada, the Nevada State Health Division’s Bureau of Health Protection Services, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Nevada Rural Water Association, and the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association, with support and funding through the Nevada State Health Division’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund—has been working to meet the needs of Nevada’s small and very small community water systems.

Using videoconference technology, water operator classes are now being offered in rural communities across Nevada. The University and Community College System of Nevada maintains more than 85 video conferencing sites in 26 communities throughout the state, putting a videoconference facility within 70 miles of any public water system. (See figure 3.)

Most large systems have the resources to support ongoing education for staff. However, in small and very small systems, water system operation and maintenance may be just one of the many tasks that an owner/operator may be required to perform. Typically, small systems struggle to comply with changing federal regulations and continuing education requirements.

The videoconferencing sessions are designed specifically to meet the needs of small system operators.The videoconferencing classes consist of three hours of morning instruction to minimize time away from work. Participants earn three contact hours of continuing education. Classes, taught from the University of Nevada campus in Reno, are broadcast to up to as many as six sites at once.

Participants at each site see and hear instructors and participants at all other sites. Instructors from partner groups share expertise and experience with small groups of participants from public water supply systems. This system of instructor-sharing ensures that a broad range of topics can be covered. Thus far, operators have been pleased that they are able to fulfill state education requirements without missing full or multiple work days.

Class topics have targeted specific federal requirements, such as consumer confidence report preparation, sampling techniques, options for meeting the new arsenic regulations, and basic treatment principles. Each class contains an hour-long section of mathematics related to the topic. For example, classes that cover coagulation and flocculation included calculations of daily feed rates and dilution equations. Classes for consumer confidence report preparation included review of techniques for computing averages and unit conversions.

In June 2001, operators attended three hours of water operator math, developed by Nevada’s multi-agency Drinking Water and Wastewater Training Coalition. The math presentations reinforced the technical material and provided practical information related to plant operation. One operator commented that the most effective part of the class was “putting math into perspective when used in a work situation.”

Benefits of Videoconferences
The benefit of videoconferencing over packaged courses—those taken through books or VHS tapes—is that classes are live and interactive. The statewide system of “smart classrooms” allows operators to hear, see, and communicate with the instructor and other classrooms simultaneously. Educational materials can be in any form, including lecture, computer graphics, transparencies, white board notes, and videotapes. Instructors can switch easily between media for dynamic and lively presentations.

Also, operators who might never see their peers in person can exchange information and helpful suggestions with others in classrooms hundreds of miles away. When asked what was most effective about a session, a participant replied, “being able to talk to different towns and cities.” Videoconferencing provides virtual face-to-face contact between small clusters of operators.

Participants can ask questions specific to their community’s public water system. The remote videoconferencing sessions minimize travel and travel cost burdens on the parts of participants and organizers. Participants avoid the cost of traveling to distant seminars, and organizers and instructors are not required to travel to sessions that might be attended by very small audiences.

Because the sessions reach large but dispersed audiences throughout the state, training program coordinators have been able to invite speakers from federal, state, and local governmental agencies and private consultants. Representatives of 12 government agencies, including general improvement districts in Nevada, have conducted sessions.

Results Are Encouraging
To date, 20 classes have been held, reaching more than 500 operators from 153 different public water supplies and Indian reservations, with a large proportion coming from small to very small systems. At the end of each class, operators are asked to evaluate and comment on class content, effectiveness, and technical aspects. Responses to date have been very positive.

Participants rated different aspects of the class including the appropriateness of the material and the pace of the class. Ninety-two percent of participants felt that the material was appropriate. (See figure 4.) Individual sections of each class were rated separately in order to identify which topics best suited the audience. Overall, 77 percent of participants rated the classes good to very good. Ninety-nine percent of all participants would attend videoconferencing classes in the future in lieu of traveling to a seminar, and 95 percent would recommend them to colleagues and co-workers.

Support for Certification
Recently, operators participated in a special four-hour distance education session designed to help them prepare for the certification examinations. The class, held in cooperation with the Nevada State Health Division’s Bureau of Health Protection Services and assisted by the California-Nevada Section of the AWWA, was held a day before state certification examinations were administered. Water operators were able to attend the review and take exams at five locations in the state the following day. Examination proctors contracted and scheduled by the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association were available in each community that hosted the videoconference.

The session included four instructors who presented information about treatment techniques; distribution basics; policy, safety, and management; and operator mathematics for treatment and distribution operators grades 1 and 2. They also provided confidence-building test-taking tips. Among those who attended, many felt that the review session had been a key factor in their success. An analysis of results showed that those operators who took the class prior to the exams had a passing success rate of 92 percent. This is notably higher than the average 84 percent success rate for the entire group that took the examination.

The Future of Videoconferencing
Future classes will continue to focus on operators of small to very small systems and will also reach managers and board members. An upcoming session will cover board responsibilities, open meeting laws, and agendas. To address operator certification compliance, a class will also be held for the very smallest of systems including non-transient, non-community systems. These classes will address regulatory and policy issues, operator certification, and small system management.

Requests for specific classes commonly include exam preparation, sampling requirements, and distribution topics, such as water mains, pump basics, and fire hydrant maintenance.

About the Photo: Nevada—Twin oceans of sagebrush and sky. A huge land area and limited resources have fostered water training innovations in the Silver State.

One exciting prospect for the future is using more instructors from remote locations.

A recent session included an instructor who broadcast his portion of the program from EPA Region IX headquarters in San Francisco. These approaches will greatly expand the possibilities and variety of education opportunities for Nevada’s rural water system operators.

The 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act require that all community water systems have a certified water operator available for each shift. Nevada’s challenge is to support public water supplies in rural areas where training is less available and more costly to obtain than in metropolitan areas. Videoconferencing is proving to be an efficient way to reach small communities without the expense of lost work hours and extensive traveling.

Using existing videoconference sites, a unique partnership between university, public agencies, and service groups now brings interactive training classes within about one hour’s travel time of the remotest and smallest community systems in the state. Having operators from distant and rural small systems connected via videoconferencing has had the added benefit of enhancing communication among peers. In addition, success rates appear to be higher than average among those who attend preparatory classes prior to taking state operator certification exams. Ongoing evaluations of the classes have been very positive and are useful for designing programs to meet specific needs and requests of the smallest systems.

The potential of videoconferencing in Nevada is just being realized. Access and availability to education is expanding for water system operators and for managers, board members, and community leaders as well. Creating a method of ongoing education that is affordable and accessible helps meet the basic objective of the SDWA of providing adequate, safe, and potable drinking water for all customers of public water systems in Nevada.

The videoconferencing program is sponsored by the Nevada State Health Division’s Bureau of Health Protection Services, using set-aside funding from the State Health Division’s Safe Drinking Water Act’s State Revolving Fund Program. Educational materials are supplied by the American Water Works Association, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, the Nevada Rural Water Association and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection. The Advisory Board of Certification for water system operators and operator certification and the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association have been very supportive of the entire effort.

Federal Register. 1999. “Final Guidelines for the Certification and Recertification of the Operators of Community and Nontransient Noncommunity Public Water Systems; Notice.” 64 FR 24 (February): 5916.

Lawson, Cliff. 2000. “Training: One Day Workshops Top Pick.” Water Lines 8:1.

U.S. Census Bureau, 2000. Population Division: Rankings, Comparison and Summaries.

Xie, Yueleng, Charles A. Cole, and David A. Long. 1999. “Training Center Targets Small System Operators.” Journal AWWA, 99:19:123.