Sunday, January 31, 2016


This morning my shower siphoned my toilet.  Somehow the cross-connection backflow had gone bonkers.  This is the what backflow means:

Later in the day, the problem ended.  This is our first week without one of our city workers, the one who was in charge of “dirty” water.  Could that be the problem or is my house trying to do me in  -- again?   The two aspects of the town’s piping is one that brings the potable (clean enough to drink) water into the house and one that carries the used water out to the sewage lagoon.  In the past the two men had divided the work between them with the dirty water being managed by Roger, who was wooed away by a different town.  I don’t know whether this backflow problem was about “dirty” or “clean” water but it hardly matters since now one guy must do both.  His health is not good.  Water masters are in short supply.  City employees here take so much criticism and second-guessing that it won’t be easy to hire.

Clearly, we citizens need to get informed about managing small town water systems very quickly.  Luckily the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has posted on YouTube a whole series about this, called “Managing a Small Town Public Water System”.  The link above is to the fifth vid in the series.  It’s not the only YouTube series about such practical matters.  Other towns also register advice, and I’ve begun watching them all.  I realized what a great household resource YouTube is when my toilet shut-off valve wore out months ago and the replacement wasn’t the familiar bulb-on-an-arm I’d dealt with before, but rather some puzzling tube thing.

Maybe no one realizes how much maintenance and management a water system needs.  We have two water-towers now, four wells, different kinds of pumps, and several miles of “tubing” through the town and out to the sewage lagoon.  All this stuff is vulnerable to weather, usage, and small disasters like pipe collapse.  There’s a lot of checking, adjusting, and just monitoring.

This lady speaks about the planetary version of water distribution and says there is always the same amount of water on Earth.  I had no idea.  It changes states (vapor, liquid, fluid) but not amount.  I keep having realizations: like water towers are only needed if there’s no hill to get the water tank up high for gravity flow.  This is an excellent thing to remember if you’re siting a new town.  Heart Butte, Cut Bank, Shelby and Conrad all have that advantage.

When I first came to Browning in 1961, the water system was poorly understood.  One tank was up by Parsons -- you could see it along highway 89 -- and a water tower was a few blocks from me.  The line between the two had just been reinstalled without an engineer, so the trench had been dug a certain depth, the pipe was put in and connected, but because it followed the contours of the land, it airlocked all the time.  Most of it had been dug up and realigned.  The water tower itself was sometimes filled with a pump turned on by hand and sometimes the operator forgot to come back and turn off the pump on time, so that it overflowed.  The sound always made met think it had begun to rain, usually at night when no one was drawing water.

All water distribution systems vary in pressure, which is much of what has to be watched and adjusted.  A water master must be in town 24/7 to deal with emergencies from broken pipes or failed pumps.  That’s why there are two.

One takes classes to learn about how to become a “water master”  who is certified to manage a town water system.  This website provides news about the tests and YouTube practice questions.  “MOST” stands for McLean's Operational Services Training.  There are specific variations in various locations.

One that struck me right off was the one about “blue baby syndrome” which is about nitrates that get into the water systems, particularly when there is a lot of nitrate use for fertilizer in conjunction with irrigation.  Once I helped deliver a calf with nitrate in it’s system: it lived only as long as the mother’s oxygen was in its blood.  Nitrates replace hemoglobin, producing chemical suffocation.  The calf seemed fine but with a minute was inert -- no convulsions, no bleeding, no wound.  Just dead.  I hope local obstetricians check for nitrates in the mother’s blood as a standard part of prenatal care.  I know of one ranch well that was contaminated.  There was a pregnant female in the family. 

By now I’ve subscribed to three separate u-tube “flows” of information about town water systems.  No one is going to hire a tubby old lady to be a water master, but maybe I’ll take the exam just to see whether I could pass it.  The fees cost a few hundreds of dollars.  The problem we’ve got here is that $15 an hour is not enough to attract a prepared water master, so we would have to take a chance on fronting the money for the tests -- the state allows six months to a year to pass -- for someone who might not pass or might get discouraged and quit.   

These YouTubes are called “virtual training” rather than “online education.”  They tend to be practical demonstrations, video courses that ought to prepare one for the state exam.  Each of the following (which is the list of lessons offered by MOST) costs $10, which should be added to the cost of the test.  As you can see, this is not the same as turning a garden hose on and off.  Skills needed are chemistry, geology, hydrology, but -- most of all -- math.  Roger has needed marksmanship in order to remove muskrats who burrow through the outer earth wall, threatening to drain the lagoon.  

The factor that haunts us here is extreme low temps.  After we failed our coliform tests repeatedly last winter, we had to add a cover and circulation pumps to keep the “bugs” warm enough to digest waste.  It’s just being finished. The state requires engineers because too many amateurs think things are simple when they are not.  But engineers slip up, too.  I don’t know what their excuse is, but it’s not helpful when they come from some other ecology.

Some of these water master subjects may seem a little exotic.  The one about iron and manganese treatment is what made reservation water impossible to use for dialysis -- when chlorine hit, it precipitated into little black dots.  It was an expensive struggle to find a local clean water source, but a necessary one to keep people from having to travel a hundred miles to a dialysis center several times a week.  We used to joke about the local water guy in 1990 in Heart Butte -- which was either before the state standards were passed or so remote a community that no one checked.  If he needed to go to town and wouldn’t be there to dump in the chlorine that day, he just dumped in double, figuring that it would average out.  Sometimes the teachers looked a little pale, but we were “pale faces” anyway.  (Jokes.  I’ve learned to mark my jokes since some people mistake them for insults.)  We were constantly afflicted by low-grade GI upsets.

The Hydrologic Cycle
Pipe Systems
Flow Meters
Chloramines in the Distribution System
Back flow and cross connections
Dimensional Analysis
Area Calculation
Volume Calculation
Flow Rate Calculation
Velocity Calculation, Friction, and Hydraulic Grade Lines
Chemical Feed Calculations: The Pounds Formula
Chemical Feed Calculations: Chlorination  (2 parts
Static Hydraulics: Density, Specific Gravity, and Pressure
CT Calculations
Activated Carbon Adsorption
Ion Exchange
Iron and Manganese Treatment
Lime Softening
The Nature of Water
Secondary Standards
Microbiology for Operators
The Total Coliform Rule and Measuring Coliforms
Disinfection By-Products
General Source Water Characteristics
The Surface Water Treatment Rule
Filtration (2 parts)

The Valier water system does not only serve the residents.  Some ranches have no well, so they must come into town to fill up giant tanks that can be emptied into their underground cisterns.  Aside from household use, they mix the water with herbicides and fertilizer as well as watering livestock.   A little tricky when it’s thirty below.  Of course, anyone who comes to church, school, cafe, service station is using the town water system.  We are learning to think of the town as the center of a wider area that is a service area, like the gas, the telephone lines, the electricity.  Water is the key to life itself, but distribution and use are what turn the key.

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