Drinking Water Operational Codes: from research to implementation

BTO Impact Story

With the aim of achieving more uniformity in the operational management at drinking water utilities, KWR is working with the sector on the Drinking Water Operational Codes. In these codes, the scientific research from the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities (‘BTO’ in its Dutch abbreviation) is transformed into practical guidelines. ‘We are a bunch of driven “investigators” who reformulate research outcomes into practical guidelines,’ says Martin Meerkerk, senior researcher at KWR.

Around the turn of the century there was a growing call in the drinking water sector for uniformity in managing practical questions concerning the installation, maintenance and management of drinking water objects. Up until then, the task had been assigned to the drinking water utility branch association (Vewin). But when Vewin was transformed into a lobby organisation and moved to The Hague, a vacuum was created for a new initiative. In 2003, two drinking water colleagues set up the Operational Management Platform, which then sprouted the Operational Codes Supervisory Group. It immediately attracted considerable support: all of the Dutch water utilities became involved; and in 2014 the Belgian drinking water utility Pidpa also joined up. Since that time about thirty codes have been elaborated.

Drinking water course

‘In 2008 the drinking water utilities gave us a budget and we could get underway,’ says Martin Meerkerk – co-founder of Operational Codes Supervisory Group and a prominent figure at KWR, thanks to his 35 years’ of service. ‘The codes are primarily aimed at increasing harmonisation within the drinking water sector in the Netherlands, to strengthen operational efficiency and to comply with regulations. Water abstraction, treatment, transport, distribution, storage: the entire drinking water course is addressed.’ Each of the group’s meetings – which are held quarterly – has a central theme. Moreover, subjects also arise organically, stimulated by questions from water operational practice or raised by KWR. Fire hydrants, wells, failure registration, permeation: for each subject the Supervisory Group assesses whether there is sufficient material for a new code.

Climate neutrality

A list is drawn up of potential codes, one by one. A new subject? Then the Supervisory Group members turn to working groups, in which experts from KWR and drinking water utilities have a chair. Tessa van den Brand – originally a bioprocess technologist at KWR and, for a year and a half now, Meerkerk’s right-hand woman – is a member of the climate neutrality working group, among others. ‘At one of the meetings we wanted to highlight that the transport activities at a water utility are responsible for about 20 percent of its CO2 emissions. You then check out whether any research has already been done on the matter, and how you might shape it into a code.’ The group draws primarily on research work that KWR has done in the past with the drinking water utilities. (Practically) no new research is undertaken. The group’s focus is on the application of knowledge.

‘The implementation of the research outcomes from the Joint Research Programme is often a tricky issue,’ says Meerkerk. ‘We know the saying that “knowledge only becomes valuable when you do something with it”. As KWR, you have a research role, you reach conclusions and you make recommendations. Sometimes there is a question as to whether anything is done with the knowledge. It’s an enjoyable challenge to work with the drinking water utilities in bringing the codes to operational practice.’ In a working group all the relevant information is consolidated into a handy operational code. A code like the one for climate neutrality has to be a concise reference guide for the water sector. Does a water utility want to achieve a CO2 reduction of 10 percent? Then the operational code shows how this can be done.

Five-year review

Van den Brand: ‘One sees that drinking water utilities have big climate ambitions. They compare each other’s performance. Sometimes a utility announces that it has cut emissions by 5 percent. Can that be replicated at another utility? To find out we need to define the system boundaries and clarify the terminology, to ensure people are talking about the same thing. This is pretty complicated when it comes to the environment, because there are hundreds of options.’ Since some issues evolve quickly, the group makes use of a ‘five-year review’. ‘Climate is developing rapidly. A new IPCC report is issued about every two years and shakes things up quite a bit. To remain relevant, such a code needs to be kept up-to-date.’

Although a drinking water utility is an autonomous enterprise, and the guidelines are not binding, the support in the sector is considerable, says Michiel Helgers, chairperson of the Operational Codes Supervisory Group and Technical Account Manager at Dunea. ‘Our work is taken seriously. Not for nothing have we been allocated a substantial budget from the drinking water utilities to create and update the codes.’ The group takes at least one year on average to produce a code, as was the case of the subject of hygiene – a guideline that was incorporated as an extension to the drinking water legal and regulatory framework. ‘The government considered it a good document and wanted to take it further. It includes how a pipe should be flushed and disinfected, for example. But also how soon you can collect a sample after a failure event. Everything that is relevant, we include.’

European standard

The operational code for drinking water pipes outside of buildings is now in general use at two drinking water utilities at least. ‘The code is based on an overlying European standard,’ says Meerkerk. ‘This code has therefore actually become a national guideline. For years I have advocated that this code should become the quality manual for the Dutch drinking water utilities with regard to transport and distribution. This offers you a perfect regulatory path. You move from the European level, to the national level, and ultimately to the utility level. The European standard is being updated this year, so we will also update the guideline. In this way, we keep the code in line with the European level.’

Although the group leaders stand firmly behind the codes, sometimes they need to seek connections with the operational staff at the drinking water utilities. By mobilising work groups with these staff members, who are on the operational ‘front line’, the group hopes to see the codes spread like an oil slick. At the same time handy operational booklets are being produced for this group. Helgers: ‘The idea is that these booklets be discussed at staff meetings. And that they end up for example being included in the technicians’ dashboard compartment. We also ask the technicians to participate in the writing of the booklets, so that their language is not too stilted and they can be easily read by those executing the tasks.’

New developments

In addition, the Drinking Water Operational Codes website also contributes to building awareness. It is a place that anyone can go to follow the latest developments and to consult the codes. Soon the guidelines for dealing with chemicals in drinking water treatment and for the removal of methane from water will be added. And it will not stop there, promises Meerkerk: ‘There are all kinds of questions for which we still don’t have answers. For instance, I ask myself how long you can leave water in a drinking water reservoir before it is spoiled. These reservoirs hold thousands of cubic meters of water. Should I throw it away after a day, after a month? Take a reservoir, put in a couple of hundred cubic meters of water, and then start taking your samples. You will come to a conclusion. That is the kind of question we will be translating into new codes.’

This article is one of a series of BTO Impactverhalen (Impact Stories), which are stories about the outcomes of the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities and the Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE) programme.