Leading by Example in the Columbia Basin: Water Smart Champion Pilots Innovative Approach to Peer-to-Peer Water Utility Training


Note to Reader:

All across BC, water utility operators in rural areas can face challenges in keeping up with their mandatory certifications. But one Water Smart utility operator in the Columbia Basin region is piloting a new approach that may transform water operator training in BC.  The following article was written by Meredith Hamstead, Water Smart Coordinator for the Columbia Basin Trust.

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Peer-to-Peer training Model Supports Improved Outcomes in Water Demand Management

“Since 2009, 25 local governments in the Columbia Basin region of the province have taken a leadership role in water demand management through the Columbia Basin Water Smart Initiative. Local government staff in Water Smart communities have been at the heart of every major success for the initiative since then,” reports Meredith Meredith Hamstead_120pHamstead, Water Smart Coordinator for the Columbia Basin Trust.

“Now, with a bit of mentoring support from senior staff in Cranbrook, Jesse Reel (Water Utility Manager at the City of Castlegar) is piloting an innovative project that may revolutionize water operator training in the Basin, once again positioning Water Smart as a water conservation leader in BC.”

“Exploration of an innovative peer-to-peer training model for water utility operators is presenting a unique opportunity for professional development that will support improved outcomes in water demand management in B.C.”

The Challenge

Certified water utility operators in BC are required to earn 2.4 continuing education units (CEUs) every two years through the Environmental Operators Certification Program (EOCP). In the Basin, as in other rural regions of the province, this can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

Eligible courses are often very costly, and are most often delivered in the Lower Mainland or Okanagan, which means substantial travel costs. Further, for the smallest utilities, attendance may mean being critically short-handed while the only certified operator is away for training.

The Solution

Building on momentum gained through Water Smart’s 2011 to 2013 water loss management training courses, Reel is now piloting an EOCP-certified peer-to-peer approach to operator training. It is hoped that this model will allow water utility operators to both deliver and receive training within their communities, in small groups, using hands-on, practical exercises as opposed to relying solely on traditional Jesse Reel_160pclassroom-based learning.

Reel has already been successful in becoming a registered EOCP instructor in three subject matter areas (congratulations!). Since then, he has volunteered his time to work with the Glade Irrigation District to develop local confined space policies and procedures. The City of Castlegar has been supportive of Reel’s efforts, recognizing that through this process they will realize the benefits of expanded staff expertise.

Once the confined space policies and procedures are complete, Reel will register an EOCP-certified course in pressure-reducing valve (PRV) setup, troubleshooting, maintenance and repair.  Then he’ll go to Glade to run an on-site, EOCP-certified training exercise.

The Benefits

Throughout this process, Joe McGowan, Public Works Manager for the City of Cranbrook, has been mentoring Reel. McGowan is a provincial leader in water utility and operator excellence. He feels that the peer-to-peer approach will capitalize on the incredible operator expertise that already exists in the Basin.Joe McGowan_trimmed_120p

“Jesse, like many operators in our region, has years of practical expertise and extensive professional training. Experienced operators sometimes find themselves taking EOCP-recognized courses in topics they are already experts in, just so they can meet the CEU requirements to maintain certification,” states Joe McGowan.

“This new training model will allow the Basin’s resident-experts to teach the practical skills they know so well, which will further their own expertise, while also earning CEUs without stepping into a classroom.”

The Learning Model

As an EOCP-certified trainer, every time Reel teaches a course, he’ll be eligible for double the number of CEUs, which will minimize the City’s training budget for Reel’s operator certification. But perhaps more important is the learning model.

“By going through the process of preparing the Glade confined spaces policies and procedures myself, I know the subject much better than if I had sat in a classroom for two days,” said Reel. “This is a win for me in terms of professional development, but it’s also a win for the City, because my expertise is really growing. And I know I’ll get the same experience from actually teaching a fellow operator the PRV course right at his or her utility.”

In addition, the peer-to-peer training model will allow operators to receive the training they really need within the Basin—which means improved learning outcomes and reduced travel budgets.

For the Glade Irrigation District’s purposes, the onsite, peer-to-peer training model will be cost effective and build meaningful hands-on expertise for its own system, again while earning CEUs for its operators. Add to this the longer-term benefits of operator networking that will result from this approach…win-win-win!

A Look Beyond

Reel’s pilot project will give the Water Smart team a better understanding of the peer-to-peer training model and whether to consider supporting it’s delivery across the Basin as part of the Water Smart Initiative.

In the meantime, the EOCP recently announced changes that have added more flexibility and options for recognizing CEUs. A June 20 EOCP email to service providers announced that as of January 1, 2014, there has been a change to the current three-hour-minimum requirement for recognized training.

The new rule is that courses must be a minimum of 30 minutes and full credit will be granted for each 30 minutes of training. These changes are a major boost to peer-to-peer training exercises for which a training activity may not take all day, or even half a day to complete.


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Columbia Basin Water Smart provides support to participating regional districts, municipalities and First Nations in the Columbia Basin to assess and address their water conservation needs and plan for the most locally effective actions to reduce community-wide water consumption. Learn more at www.cbt.org/watersmart.

For more information contact Meredith Hamstead.