Justin Maughan led a team effort to meet a water-contamination challenge, earning praise from local officials and citizens and winning a water operations award.
Imagine, you’re new to your job and you get hit with a mishap that knocks out your city’s water supply for nearly a week. That’s what happened to Justin Maughan, P.E., Public Works director in Nibley, Utah.
A diesel oil spill into a spring in April 2015 contaminated the community’s water supply. Maughan and colleagues worked day and night to diagnose and correct the problem, restoring normal water quality and service to customers.
Maughan’s cool head, nonstop work and analytical approach met the test and gained him recognition. For his handling of the crisis, Maughan received the 2016 Water Operator of the Year award from the Rural Water Association of Utah.
Alan Luce, North Logan Public Works director, and Mike Grunig, Hyde Park Public Works director, nominated Maughan for the award. They cited his fast response and heads-up actions over six days, from an April 22 “do not use” order to the “all clear” message on April 28.
Grunig wrote that Maughan’s “quick actions and knowledge of the system … contained and prevented a catastrophic event.” Luce saluted Maughan for organizing his own staff and coordinating resources from other cities, counties, the state, the Rural Water Association and the Utah Water & Wastewater Agency Response Network. “Because of his remarkable capability, the residents of the city were able to enjoy clean drinking water again,” Luce wrote. “Several operators from other cities took note of his abilities and focused effort.”
That’s high praise for a guy who doesn’t consider himself a true water operator. “Nibley has no full-blown water treatment plant,” says Maughan, a Nibley native who has Grade IV (highest) water operator and Grade IV sewer operator certifications. “We have two deep wells and a spring source called Yeates Spring. We get the water, chlorinate it and move it into our storage tanks and into the distribution system. Collectively, the wells put out 3,300 gpm, the spring puts out about 350 gpm, and our three tanks collectively hold 3.5 million gallons. We serve 1,600 connections, a population of about 6,000.”
Before Maughan became Public Works director in September 2014, he spent nearly six years in the Engineering Department of Logan, a city of 49,000 about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. It was his first job after graduating in 2009 from Utah State University in Logan with a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering and a bachelor’s in the same discipline.
He took the director’s position because he thought it would be “a good career choice to move into a city that’s growing so fast.” Incorporated in 1935, the community was named after Charles W. Nibley, a bishop in the Mormon church. A quiet, rural suburb of Logan with six parks, three elementary schools and a few businesses, Nibley has doubled in population over the last 10 years.
“Besides, water is a good field,” says Maughan. “I don’t think many people realize what an important job water operators do. Of course, they’d have a much better understanding if they went through what we experienced here in Nibley, where we were without water for a week.”
The diesel spill happened when a farmer was driving a truck on the access road that goes past Yeates Spring and up to the water tanks. For some reason, his brakes locked and two tires slipped off the road, causing the truck to tilt and ultimately leak up to 25 gallons of diesel oil from its fuel tank into the spring. It happened on a Saturday, and it was late Monday night before Maughan and his Sewer and Water Division team got their first “funny water” complaint.
They went to the home, tasted the water and noticed a film on it. At first, they thought the problem was the homeowner’s water softening system, so they took samples, sent them to the lab and did some precautionary hydrant flushing. End of story, they believed.
But early Tuesday morning a second complaint came in. After taking a sample, the team visited the collection-area box next to the spring, popped the hatch and saw the bad news. “It looked like a parking lot had spilled into our drinking water system,” says Maughan. “Immediately, we notified the state that we had a major contamination issue. Then the city issued a no-use order to the public. We told everybody we could by any means possible: social media, local radio and personal calls to schools and businesses.”
Nibley residents were told not to drink the water, wash with it or use it to clean their clothes. Other communities brought in trucks filled with water and donated bottled water. Still, two local schools closed. Day care facilities were hit hard because of all the water they use, and so was a convenience store, which lost thousands of dollars in business when it couldn’t sell coffee, sodas or meals.
Before moving to the cleanup phase, Maughan, like any good engineer, sat down with city engineers and Sewer and Water Department personnel to investigate options. Such thoroughness distinguished Maughan during the effort, according to Justin Pope, department manager and 10-year Nibley veteran.
“Justin is an awesome boss — the best I’ve ever had,” says Pope, a Grade IV water operator. “He did a great job handling the contamination event. He’s different than your typical public works type because of his background as an engineer. Across the board, he knew where to get resources to help. It was his broad spectrum and experience that was so effective. We’re a small city with very limited experience in this sort of thing. He knew who to call to get us what we needed, from booms to soak up oil to folks who could drive our samples the hour 20 minutes to Salt Lake City.”
Rod Elwood, parks division manager and 15-year city employee, was equally appreciative: “Justin is a good guy who likes to be informed about both sides of an issue before making a decision. He did very well resolving the contamination issue. He wasn’t too quick to make a decision. He wanted to know how our actions would affect the system. His biggest concern was with our customers and making sure they were well taken care of during the emergency.”
With the help of the county fire department, Maughan’s crew turned on the two wells, since there was no problem with them, and flushed 72 hydrants, about half the number in the system. At the same time, the city’s three connected water tanks had to be decontaminated.
Instead of deploying skimmer pumps, Maughan decided to overflow the tanks, but that posed problems because the overflow elevations weren’t exactly the same for all three tanks.
Since the team couldn’t get in enough water to spill from the tanks, they had to use a core drill to punch holes in the tank sides to skim off as much oily water as possible.
While that was happening, Public Works crews were cleaning the spill site, using oil-absorbent pads to make sure the diesel fuel didn’t go anywhere. Meanwhile, Maughan sent samples to the lab to make sure the system was, in fact, cleaned up. It was pretty much around-the-clock for the first three days, with maybe a few off hours for naps. The first night brought no sleep whatsoever. Finally, the water was declared safe to use. Maughan and the rest of the Public Works staff could relax, but only a little.
“When the decontamination work was completed, we asked Nibley residents to flush their homes,” says Maughan. “While we didn’t max out our sewer system, we put a lot of water into it, which was pretty nerve-wracking.
“All of our sewer water flows through one lift station that goes to Logan City, so I had guys at the lift station during the flushing with tanker trucks standing by in case something went wrong. Our normal sewer flows are normally about 350 gpm. When this event was taking place we were pushing 1,500 gpm. In the end, we gained a lot respect for our 10-year-old sewer system and the importance of maintaining our lift station and pumps.”
As for the normally low-key Maughan, he gained the community’s respect and top marks from his boss, David Zook, city manager. Zook calls Maughan, whom he helped hire, “a good leader, who leads by example. Justin has done an amazing job in terms of handling emergencies and in his everyday role as Public Works director.”
Zook says Maughan didn’t know about the Water Operator of the Year award until notified that he had won. “When we had a City Council meeting and formally presented Justin with the award, he invited all of his team and recognized them for their efforts, as well as all the office staff who worked throughout the event,” Zook says. “And he has given credit to teams from the other communities who pitched in, and to our residents and local businesses who came together to get the issue resolved.”
Despite such accolades, Maughan, father of two young sons and a daughter, remains laser-focused on overseeing Nibley’s water, sewer, roads and parks systems, starting his day at 7 a.m. and leaving between 3:30 and 5 p.m. In his rare off hours, he likes to fish, hunt and camp in the summer, and ski and snowmobile in the winter. Still, his commitment to the Nibley community occupies his attention.
“There’s such a broad spectrum of activities here,” Maughan says. “One day I’m driving a snow plow and the next day I’m in a meeting with engineers discussing drilling a new well for the city and everything in between. That’s what makes this job so challenging — and enjoyable.”
When Justin Maughan won the Operator of the Year award, he gave credit to everyone while downplaying his role in responding to the April 2015 water contamination crisis. “I truly believe that the award belongs to the entire Cache Valley community, certainly not me alone,” he says. “Everybody did a fantastic job during the water contamination crisis.”
Indeed, the surrounding communities took the good-neighbor concept to the next level. From the start of the emergency, teams from other the Cache Valley communities in northern Utah pitched in: Logan City, Hyrum City, Paradise, Providence City, Richmond and Hyde Park.
They provided filling stations for Nibley residents to fill water containers. They brought in tankers and moved them throughout the city to dispense water. They helped flush contaminated waterlines, offered advice to city engineers on the cleanup, and took on tasks to relieve exhausted work crews. Moreover, grocery stores and businesses donated bottled water, and some neighboring residents even made their homes available for people to take showers or wash their clothes.
“We needed everybody’s help for those six days,” says Maughan. “The Nibley Public Works Department has only seven employees. After so much work, we got pretty tired and needed to rest. For example, we had to drive our water samples to Salt Lake City, which is nearly an hour and a half away, and we sure didn’t want guys with an hour or so sleep going that far. So we asked workers from other communities, and they were happy to drive. Their support meant so much.”