The 3 P’s to protect your sewers

Cities, Regulation, Sanitary Sewer, Sustainability

In closing an issue on SeeClickFix this week, I received some positive comments about my public service announcement on what to flush and what not to flush to help keep the sanitary system and treatment plant in good condition. This isn’t specific to Revelstoke, but is best practice for all sewer systems. 

Here’s a graphic you can share, and here’s a link to the SeeClickFix conversation, and my longer comment – the text is below:

This is a long comment, but it has been a big issue for a large number of residents. We’re a month into the installation of the mixers at the sewer lagoon and the operation of the sewer odour control equipment, and the odours from the building are down to almost nothing, as the activated carbon filters do their job scrubbing the odour forming compounds from the air.

The lagoons continue to improve in health, and even with the run of hot weather over the past couple of weeks, the mixers are helping keep the ponds working in a healthy, aerobic state.The operators have found that the mixers are requiring significant cleaning, as the mixing action is bringing rags, “flushable wipes”, sanitary pads, tampons and other materials to the surface. We are hoping that this level of effort will reduce over time as these materials are removed from the ponds. Note that the City does have a Screen Separator installed, so most of the solids are screened before entering the lagoons, but if this equipment is offline for maintenance, additional solid material can enter the ponds. Here’s an article about the screening equipment: 

Note that flushable wipes should not be flushed, nor should any other wipe, cloth or sanitary device other than toilet paper. Because the internet is a vast resource for discovering extreme municipal oddities, here is an article about a 14 tonne, bus sized congealed ball of fat and baby wipes that was found in a London sewer. While Revelstoke hasn’t dealt with anything that size, it is a constant issue in lift stations and sewer mains.

For the health of your sewer service, to minimize the chance of sewer backups, and to protect the City’s system; you should only flush the “three Ps”: pee, poop and toilet paper, and in the kitchen remove solids as well as cooking fats and greases from pans and dishes before washing them.

There are still some odours noticeable occasionally particularly with the hot weather, this is pretty normal for an aerated lagoon system, and the City will continue to monitor and investigate ways to limit the odours. The 5-year capital plan does have funds for sewer lagoon upgrades in 2019, over the next few years we will begin to develop options and cost estimates for these upgrades, which will likely focus on increased sewer flows due to development.


Complexity and Obsolescence

BC, Blogging, Civil Engineering, Construction, Data, Governance, Sustainability, UrbanWorkbench News

Solutions are not the answer

“The chief cause of problems is solutions” – Eric Sevareid

“Solutions are not the answer” – Richard Nixon

In my role at the City of Revelstoke, I am confronted with years of amassed data, much of it in the City’s GIS system, but occasionally, questions asked raise more questions, rather than answers, and the tugging on this little thread of data pulls out a whole mess of issues. These issues, as they arise, feel like set-backs to the staff that are working toward continual improvement in data and information that they can provide for decision making, as the answers become more complex, rather than simpler through the seeking of information.

An example of this arose this week during a routine audit of water pipe data in the GIS, (part of the continual improvement process). Some unusual water services and small diameter lines were noticed along a downtown street, these lines didn’t extend to private property, and on closer examination, appeared to be irrigation lines for street trees. An as-built drawing was discovered, showing irrigation controls and a relatively complex irrigation network in the road right of way, some parts of it defunct and abandoned, others apparently still live.

There are some obvious lessons to be learnt here.

Categorization is Important

While these irrigation lines extend off the water distribution network, they are neither water mains, lateral water services, fire hydrants or any of the other common pipe features in a public water network. Rather, these irrigation lines should have been categorized under a different layer of irrigation lines, similar to those in parks and other public spaces.

Everything Known About The Asset Should Be “In the System”

The corporate knowledge of these irrigation lines, and other similar lines within the downtown is limited to a couple of key individuals, and thankfully now our GIS/Asset Management Tech is aware and able to add adequate notes for future infrastructure questions and decisions. Our goal of continuous improvement is built on not ignoring these issues, but prioritizing based on criticality of the information gaps, future projects and ease of completion.

But more importantly…

Obsolete Infrastructure Solutions are a Liability

These irrigation lines were installed at a cost to the taxpayers as part of revitalization projects about twenty-five years ago, they were most likely used in the first summer following installation, then abandoned. Decades of experience in Revelstoke have shown that only in the hottest, driest summers would an irrigation system be warranted. When comparing the cost of installing and maintaining an irrigation system, (controls, pipes, heads, winterizing, etc), against the possibility of having to hand water through a hot summer, this solution has proven to be the cause of more problems than it set out to solve. These pipes are now a liability on the water system, not used for irrigation, a possible source of water loss and a barrier/confusion to easy utility work within the road corridor, as with all unknown, unmarked, undefined infrastructure.

This is a small example, but one that we can all understand – we’ve all bought a widget or product that we thought would solve a problem, but ended up gathering dust on a shelve in the basement, unused, well underground public infrastructure is worse, it doesn’t just clutter up your basement or garage until the next time you spring clean, it is there for decades – always in the way – increasing infrastructure repair and replacement costs.

Underground infrastructure is a perfect example of a complex system, and civil infrastructure projects deserve consideration of these complexities through a project framework such as the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. When we are considering new projects we ask not just whether we are doing the project right, but whether we are doing the right project in the first place – with a focus on long-term lifecycle cost analysis and integration of design. We have to ask whether our solutions are going to be tomorrow’s problems, and I’ll admit that it is not always easy to see how that might play out.

If you have questions on any of these ideas, let me know in the comments below!


CNAM Annual Conference 2015

Civil Engineering, Conference, UrbanWorkbench News

After a great first day of presentations at the connference, I’m ending the night running through my presentation for the 2015 Canadian Network of Asset Managers conference in Vancouver for tomorrow. I’ll be presenting on infrastructure decision-making and the Envision Sustainability Rating System and how this ties to traditional concepts of asset management.

I hope to see you at the CNAM conference tomorrow, drop me a message if you are going to be there, or find me on twitter at @Urbanworkbench.


Developing the Capital Planning Process

Civil Engineering, Community, Governance, Project Management, UrbanWorkbench News

In my role at the City of Revelstoke, council has been working through the financial plan process, and this year I thought it might be useful to deliver the capital project information in a couple of ways that I hadn’t seen before. These ideas have been in my mind for a couple of years now, as I consider how to slice the financial data in meaningful ways for council and the public to understand decisions. Behind this data is often many hours of work by staff for each project in gathering costs, researching alternatives and determining the best timing for doing the projects, but despite that work, sometimes the most difficult part is presenting the data.

To start, I divided the projects into categories of assets under the program areas, for example:

Capital Project Categories

This may seem intuitive to a municipal engineer, but when asking the public to consider over a hundred capital projects in a plan and determine where it fits into the big picture, it is important to be able to divide the data into meaningful chunks. The other benefit of performing this categorization is that it is possible to determine, again in small chunks, (but not down to the individual asset level), how much investment into each category has been made in a given year, and over time, comparing that to the replacement value of the assets and the depreciation cost incurred by the municipality. In the following fictitious example, if an average of $200,000 is invested in sewer collection (valued at say $20M), it would be reasonable to say that we were averaging 1% replacement per year, but in this example, the financial wizards have estimated that the sewer collection assets were depreciating at 1.5% per year, thus losing the City $100,000 in effective net worth each year. To be able to show this level of data across the range of municipal assets by category will be invaluable for decision-makers in the capital planning process. [click to continue…]


Financially Sustainable Water Utilities

BC, Civil Engineering, Governance, Sustainability, Water

In 2015 BC Water & Waste Association (BCWWA), with Urban Systems, completed an assessment of the financial sustainability of Water and Wastewater Utilities in British Columbia. The assessment uses 4 financial indicators based on data from the 2013 audited financial statements for municipal governments in BC. The indicators were selected based on a review of best practices in other jurisdictions, available information, and advice from knowledgeable professionals in the asset management field.

The report addresses the following questions:

  • Are BC municipalities financially well positioned to meet their existing water and wastewater infrastructure investment needs to maintain current levels of service?
  • Are water and wastewater rates recovering the full cost of service, including infrastructure renewal and replacement?
  • How much investment is needed to sustain BC’s water and wastewater infrastructure?
  • Are municipalities financially resilient to withstand sudden or unexpected changes in revenues or costs for water and wastewater systems?

For Revelstoke, these are questions that we are reviewing on an annual basis, and particularly as we begin detailing asset management plans for all assets. [click to continue…]


Integrating Sustainability into Infrastructure Projects

Cities, Civil Engineering, Community, Conference, Regulation, Sustainability, Urban Living, UrbanWorkbench News, Water

Earilier this month I had the pleasure of being invited to the FCM Sustainable Communities Conference in London, Ontario. Working with a great team of presenters I helped develop a one-day workshop for about 45 delegates on the topic of Sustainable Asset Management. This is a fairly new area of influence for FCM, and the workshop coincided with the announcement of a new branch of funding under the Green Municipal Fund called the Leadership in Asset Management Program, which is exciting news for municipalities looking to innovate in Asset Management.

My presentation developed the idea of Sustainable Infrastructure Decisions, using the Envision Infrastructure Rating System as a project guide, and I received some great feedback from delegates that had not heard of the rating system before and were keen to introduce it into their municipalities. During the presentation, I asked the delegates to consider how the infrastructure projects that their communities are doing every year could be done better, and specifically, to challenge their engineers to consider sustainability in all aspects of infrastructure projects. [click to continue…]

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FCM Sustainable Communities Conference 2015

Canada, Civil Engineering, Conference

I am honoured to be speaking at the 2015 FCM Sustainable Communities Conference in London Ontario in a couple of weeks time.



I am currently putting the final touches on the afternoon presentation for the one day workshop on “Asset Management and Sustainability” that links Asset Management practices with developing sustainable civil engineering projects in the municipal sector.  If you are planning on being at the FCM conference, drop me a line, I’m excited to be presenting, and really looking forward to meeting new people and learning from Canada’s sustainability experts.


Attracting and Retaining Municipal Engineers

Civil Engineering, Governance

As I read various small town articles around North America about municipal engineering, there is frequent news of municipalities that have just lost their city engineer and are looking for a replacement, or are trying to work out how to do without.

Having been subject to the brunt of one municipality’s decision to reduce technical engineering staff (to zero), and now being responsible for an engineering department in a (not quite as) small municipality, I understand the pressures faced with budgets and decisions that need to be made.

One article that caught my eye comes from Niagara Falls, NY:

The top engineering post in Niagara Falls municipal government has been vacant since the departure of former City Engineer Jeff Skurka in April of 2013.

In the interim, Mayor Paul Dyster’s administration has used a combination of department staffers and private engineering consultants to tend to projects that fall under the city’s responsibility.

Via: Editorial: Engineering void speaks to bigger issue

Niagara FallsReading on in the article, it seems that there are two issues at stake. The first is the residency requirement for the position, apparently intended to drive a larger portion of taxpayer-funded salaries back into the local economy. Policies such as this may drive away talent who may already happily live nearby, but may not wish to relocate for the position. I heard of similar policies in some municipalities in the West Kootenays of BC when we moved there in 2007. When offered a position in a neighbouring municipality, I was informed that I wouldn’t have to move there – I was surprised that it could even be a condition of employment!

The second issue raised in the article is one that is faced in all levels of government and particularly in municipalities across North America – politics and the longevity of the position. This may be one of the biggests issues that drives many talented professionals away from the government sector.

In the case of the city engineer job, council members were right to think a sitting mayor entering the final year of his term would struggle to find a qualified engineer willing to move into the city without a higher level of confidence about the longevity of the move.

The net result is a city of over 50,000 people (wikipedia) without a City Engineer for almost two years, relying on in-house staff and likely expensive consultants to cover the shortfall, costing the community financially and placing them in a leadership void. City Engineers are the infrastructure heros of our communities, we need to do more to attract and retain  top talent into the sector to ensure that the infrastructure foundation of our communities are sound.