A Day in the Life: Wastewater Operator Edition
There are tens of thousands of wastewater treatment plants across the country. Whether big or small, these facilities help communities properly handle and treat stormwater and wastewater. Have you driven by a facility and wondered "What does all of that equipment do?" Or you may have questioned "Why would someone want to work at a wastewater treatment plant?" The wastewater industry may seem like it is hidden from the public, but the treatment plants encourage people to learn more about their operations, how the water is treated, and meet the people who work in the facility.
Since we are a manufacturer's representative, our team has the pleasure of working with wastewater treatment operators across Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. With numerous successful installations, there is one installation and team that has stood out among the rest. In early 2020, Paul Nygaard spoke with the Marinette Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent, Warren Howard. Warren stated his team was having a significant problem with PFAS/PFOA contamination in their biosolids. This was the beginning of the partnership between the ICS Group and Marinette.
Over the course of two years, the ICS Group worked with Marinette to find a solution to dewater and dry the biosolids for proper handling and transportation. Through numerous phone calls, site visits, and meetings - we had the opportunity to learn more about Warren and value his role at the Marinette Wastewater Treatment Facility. To help educate the public on the practices at wastewater treatment plants, we interviewed Warren to learn more about how he found himself working in wastewater, what a day in the life of a wastewater operator entails, and what you can do if you are interested in entering the wastewater industry.
How long have you worked in wastewater?
Warren: "We have a total of six employees including myself at the Wastewater Plant with over 100 years of service with the City of Marinette."
Why did you decide to work in wastewater?
Warren: "The main reason was job security. There will always be a need for these jobs and services."
Currently, wastewater treatment plants and public works departments across the country are experiencing challenges with hiring, training, and retaining new employees. According to an article from the EPA, "These challenges are exacerbated with roughly one-third of the water sector workforce eligible to retire in the next 10 years." When a large amount of the workforce is retiring, it is extremely important to engage those entering the workforce on the many benefits of working in public service. Warren was correct in his statement. There will always be a need for these jobs and services, and it is important that more people understand the importance of working in wastewater.
When you hear the term "green jobs" you probably do not think of working in wastewater. The reality is wastewater treatment plants are being updated and modernized with new technology to limit contaminations, protect our water, and creating sustainable environmental health. Another benefit of working in wastewater was noted in an article from Governing.com - "Water jobs pay more, on average, when compared to all occupations in the U.S., and they pay up to 50 percent more to workers at the low end of the income scale."
Individuals who are driven to have a bigger purpose and make an impact on the environment can have a fruitful career working in wastewater.
What are some stigmas or misunderstandings of wastewater?
Warren: "Most people think it is a dirty workplace, where you are working around waste all the time. Other misunderstandings are that some people don’t know the difference between the Water Plant and the Wastewater Plant."
From the images above, you can see how clean the work environment is at the Marinette Wastewater Treatment Facility. We continuously compliment Warren on the cleanliness of his facility and machinery. As Warren mentioned, there is a difference between water plants and wastewater plants. Water plants are treating water from sources such as wells, groundwater, lakes to make the water drinkable. Wastewater plants are responsible for handling the sewage and water that collected from homes and businesses in your community. The wastewater plant cleans the water and releases the water back to the environment.
If you are interested in sustainability and protecting the environment, there are several plants around the country that are experimenting with water reuse initiatives. According to an article shared on Governing.com - "Water recycling technology is now sophisticated enough to turn sewage into potable water and is already being used in jurisdictions around the country. Recycled water will play an increasing role in preventing shortages and aquifer depletion."
How does your typical day begin at the wastewater treatment plant?
Warren: "Every day we have a morning meeting, work on collecting samples, running lab tests, recording equipment hours, inspecting the equipment, and maintaining equipment."
What are some daily activities at the plant?
Warren: "Testing water, monitoring our equipment, maintenance, process control and state permitting requires lab testing. Twice a day our team walks around the plant inspecting the operation of equipment. Maintenance is done using a computer program that keeps track of all scheduled preventive maintenance that is required."
Because the plant is required to test the water, does the quality of the water change frequently? What causes incoming water to change and how do you adjust?
Warren: "Most of the changes we see are caused by the weather, inflow, and infiltration. Our wastewater plant is over-designed, so we have a lot of redundancy capacity."
What is the best part of your job?
Warren: "Giving plant tours and also the work is different from day to day and there is always something to do."
What is your least favorite part of the job?
Warren: It can be messy, and the smell can be strong at times.
If you have ever visited, worked on, or lived near a dairy farm - you probably can remember the smell. Working in a wastewater facility is similar. Over the years, there are several advances in technology to help remove the odor from the interior and exterior of wastewater facilities. Whether through ventilation, absorbents, or oxidizers there are solutions to remove odors and keep everyone happy.
What education or training is important for wastewater operators?
Warren: "General Studies in Wastewater."
There are several resources for those interested in pursuing a career in wastewater. If you are interested in learning more, please check out these resources:
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College: Wastewater Treatment - Liquid.
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College: Wastewater Treatment - Solids & Advanced
WI Department of Workforce Development: Apprenticeship, Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator
Wastewater Scholarships from Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association
Wisconsin Rural Water Association: Online Municipal Operator Training
If someone is interested in working in wastewater, what advice or tips would you give them?
Warren: "Be curious, optimistic, proactive and keep learning."
Our team wants to thank Warren Howard for taking time to shed some light on his role as the Wastewater Superintendent with the City of Marinette. We hope this information provides some insight and guidance to those who are interested in entering the field of wastewater.