Backflow prevention programs hampered by lack of funds, staff

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November 8, 2017

Less than half of utilities are required to take action after a cross-connection contamination event has occurred, according to respondents to AWWA’s first-ever backflow prevention survey.

A majority of respondents indicated they have no formal emergency response plans to follow-up on cross-connection incidents, and only 45 percent said their utilities require inspections after cross-connection contamination events occur.

“Why is there no requirement? It’s probably a lack of financial resources and appropriately trained personnel,” said Carolyn Stewart, a member of AWWA’s Cross Connection Control Committee, which oversaw the survey. “As the cross-connection control industry matures beyond program implementation and adoption, it is probable that the steps to take after an event will be incorporated in the way of doing business.”

The findings from AWWA’s 2016 Cross-Connection Control Program Survey show that public health problems caused by cross connections and backflow incidents remain a vital topic facing public and private potable water operations today.

The survey, conducted in late 2016, reveals that many program challenges are hindering development of cross-connection control programs.

“Program challenges regarding funding, staffing, enforcement, public education, reporting incidents, annual assembly testing, inspections, containment vs. isolation, and placement of CCC programs within the appropriate state and local agencies still remain unresolved,” according to the survey report.

A total of 724 systems responded to the survey, which was conducted by AWWA’s Cross Connection Control Committee, a group of water system professionals from municipal, regulatory, sales, and private consulting firms throughout the United States and Canada.

A survey report with aggregate results will be available soon in Journal AWWA. In addition, AWWA’s Backflow Prevention Resource Community and M14: Backflow Prevention and Cross-Connection Control: Recommended Practices manual provide information on how to prevent cross-connection contamination events.

Cross connections – actual or potential connections between any part of a potable water system and an environment that would allow substances to enter the drinking water supply – are prevalent in many systems today.

Cross connections have contributed to backflow incidents that have led to sickness and death. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Revised Total Coliform Rule, which aims to increase public health protection through the reduction of potential pathways for contamination in the distribution systems of public water systems.

Byron Hardin, Chair of the Cross Connection Control Committee, said political conditions can thwart development of backflow prevention programs.

“As soon as builders and developers understand requirements and pass these costs on to property owners, that’s when it can become political,” Hardin said. “It’s the installation costs on the end user that can create consequences for backflow prevention programs.”

Many backflow programs today only practice backflow prevention protection in the form of containment at the potable water meter, Hardin said, adding that he’d like to see backflow prevention programs become more proactive in protecting the occupants by requiring point-of-use isolation protection inside of facilities. This would be accomplished by following national guidelines for conducting cross-connection control surveys on required “high risk” facilities annually. This approach would also help validate required plumbing inspections to catch altered private potable water plumbing activities being performed without necessary permits.

Only 50 percent of the respondents said they have a dedicated staff person for cross-connection control, while another 41 percent said they share program responsibilities between staff.

And how do utilities enforce their programs?

“The majority of respondents implement their cross-connection control program using authority from plumbing codes, ordinances and/or regulations,” according to the committee’s survey report. “Many rely on local, state, federal, or tribal regulations. A few use other authority such as utility-specific guidance, industry, documentation, or are in the process of determining their position.”

StewartStewart said that when developing cross-connection control programs, it is human nature to start – and perhaps stop – at the low-hanging fruit: backflow preventer installation and program maintenance. After all, Stewart said, if cross connections are prevented during new construction, in theory no investigation will be needed.

Despite the survey’s revelations about the lack of action required after a cross-connection event has occurred, the good news is 80 percent of respondents said their cross-connection programs require inspections by licensed water utility operators following new construction.

Still, the survey raises significant concerns about the widespread lack of requirements following a cross-connection event.

“For me it’s obvious that if you’re staring at a train wreck, it’s time to take action and move forward,” Stewart said. “This is what the industry is about -- safe drinking water. When there is an actual contamination event, we have to make sure these hazards don’t reproduce.”

View the full article from the American Water Works Association here.