The Fire Chief Project: About those clean-water plants

A Wisconsin plant superintendent says it’s about even more than clean water

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I’m out of town for a few days attending a waterworks convention in Denver, so for today I will turn the floor over to a plant superintendent from Waukesha, Wis., where I went to college and also lived with my family for about 15 years. Peter Conine has lived in Waukesha since 1992, has been plant superintendent there since 1995, and has been in the water business since 1972. Here’s what he said in a letter:

“I applaud your efforts towards lifting our colleagues to the status of the fire chief in their communities. Good luck with that, and I'll certainly do what I can toward that end. It is a desperately long row to hoe, and the evolution of it has been going on a very long time. With each step, we have gained a little of the status.

”Our facility here has gone from being called the “City Septic Tank” when first constructed in the 1890s, to Sewage Disposal Plant, to Sewage Treatment Plant. When I started here in the early 1990s, it was called the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“My half-hearted effort to call it a Water Pollution Control Facility didn’t really take off, so it remains the WWTP. We are just completing design of a $45 million upgrade and, as part of that, I'd like to see the facility claim a name that better reflects our purpose in life: Water Resources Recovery Center.

”Of course we recover the water, but we also recover nutrients as biosolids and energy as biogas. Developments in the industry are also giving us processes that directly recover nutrients as pelletized fertilizer, at a time when mined sources are starting to decline. Water resources recovery is where we need to be to get to that next status level, from which we can aim higher than fire chief.

“I think I can honestly say that the Water Environment Federation’s mission to rebrand treatment plants as Water Resource Recovery Facilities may be the biggest step ever in the evolution toward achieving increased respect and understanding of the industry and the people who work in it.

“I do have a hard time with calling our facilities Clean Water Plants. It will be a rare operator who will grab and chug a glass of plant effluent, clean as it might be. The “clean water” title needs to be reserved for our friends who distribute drinking water. Perhaps someday we’ll see the merger of the two, either by design or through necessity, but it is not yet time for that.

”One thing to remember when comparing operators to fire chiefs is that as a city resident you may never need the services of firefighters or paramedics – but every day, several times a day, you need the services of water professionals. We are far more important than fire chiefs.”

What do you think of Mr. Conine’s perspectives? His attitudes certainly align with the aims of The Fire Chief Project:

*Raise clean-water operators to the stature of the fire chief.

* Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators.

 Your comments on Mr. Conine’s statements are welcome. Send me a note to


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