Faithful Servant

After 33 years in water and wastewater treatment, Robert Lovett still looks forward to working each day for his home city and for other communities on contract

As a young man in the U.S. Navy, Robert Lovett ran a pair of triple-effect evaporators that turned seawater into fresh water for the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. He couldn’t have known then that water would become his career.

Lovett, now 70, has worked in water and wastewater treatment for 33 years and has no plans to slow down. His main job is to operate the water and wastewater treatment plants in Woodbury, Ga., a community of 1,200, about 60 miles south of Atlanta. He also serves as contract operator for treatment systems in the nearby towns of Warm Springs (population 400), Concord (200), Talbotton (500) and Greenville (1,000).

There is no question he has followed his calling. “Somebody told me a long time ago to find something you really, really like to do, then get somebody to pay you to do it,” he says. “And that’s what I’ve done. I can honestly say that in all my years in water and wastewater, I’ve never got up a single morning dreading to go to work. I’ve enjoyed every day, and I work seven days a week.”

Lovett enjoys serving the public as well as giving back to the profession through activity in the Georgia Rural Water Association and service on the board of directors of the Meriwether County Water Authority.

Change for the better

Lovett joined the Navy in 1958, straight out of high school in Woodbury, and attained the rank of petty officer second class. He left after his four-year hitch and went to work for a business form printing company back home.

After 14 years, he was tired of that. His wife Sylvia, then city clerk in Woodbury, heard that the mayor needed someone to run the water treatment plant and let her husband know. “So I switched over, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Lovett.

He took training through the Georgia Water & Pollution Control Association (now called the Georgia Association of Water Professionals) and soon was operating the water and wastewater treatment plants. Today, he holds Georgia Class 3 wastewater and Class 2 water certifications.

About 20 years ago, he started doing contract work for other communities. Perhaps his most interesting assignment is operating the new sequencing batch reactor (SBR) plant in Warm Springs, site of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute and former President Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House.

The Warm Springs treatment system was built in 1950 and later deeded to the city. Lovett began operating the old activated sludge facility 17 years ago. “We met our permit, but the plant was aging,” he says.

In 2006, the new $5 million SBR plant (Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc.) went on line, serving the city and as many as 200,000 visitors to the Roosevelt historic sites each year. The plant, designed for 400,000 gpd, treats 200,000 gpd on average.

Consistent performance

Influent passes through a bar screen, then drops into a lift station, from which three Flygt pumps lift it to the two SBRs. Treated effluent decants to an equalization basin, flows through UV disinfection, and into Cold Creek.

After decant, biosolids are pumped to an aerobic digester, and from there to a drying bed (F.D. Deskins Company Inc.). “It’s the only drying bed of its kind in Georgia,” says Lovett. “Instead of sand, it uses crushed gravel on top. With sand, the material takes a month to dry. With this system, in good weather, it dries in five or six days. After that, we rake it up and take it to the landfill.” Water from the drying bed underdrain is piped back to the plant headworks.

Plant influent averages 180 mg/l BOD and 140 mg/l TSS. The NPDES permit calls for 17 mg/l BOD and TSS in September, October and November and 30 mg/l for the rest of the year. Actual effluent BOD and TSS are below 5 mg/l. “It looks like drinking water,” Lovett says. “Ammonia is below the detection limit. Our pH limit is 6 to 9, and that runs about 7.2. The dissolved oxygen limit is 5 parts per million, and that runs better than 7. We’ve never failed to meet our permit.”

Lovett made his own contribution to the plant’s design, calling for the addition of DO probes in a feedback loop to optimize blower operation in the SBRs and save energy. “I read about that in a magazine at the time we were building the system,” he says.

“Most plants run the blowers on a timed basis to keep the DO level up. We control the blowers with the DO probes. We keep the DO in a range from 1.2 to 2.5 parts per million. The blowers come on at 1.2 and cut off at 2.5. We spent about $11,000 for that system with a change order, but it was well worth the money.”

The SBR process is fully automated, and a SCADA system enables Lovett to monitor the operation from Woodbury.

Keeping tabs

Meanwhile, Lovett watches over the Woodbury treatment facilities, with help from one full-time operator, Ray Grizzard. The water treatment plant, a 40-year-old coagulation, sedimentation, filtration and chlorination system, is permitted for 750,000 and produces about 200,000 gpd.

The wastewater plant is rated at 325,000 gpd and processes about half that amount. The influent enters a four-acre oxidation pond and from there flows to a 9-million-gallon holding pond. It is then pumped about one mile to a spray field of six spray areas equipped with fixed heads.

“We raise 44 acres of coastal Bermuda grass,” says Lovett. “I used to bale about 10,000 bales of hay per year. Then it reached the point where we couldn’t get the help we needed, so we bid that out. Three Trees Farm in Woodbury handles that now, and they round-roll it. They get four or five cuttings of some pretty good hay.” The facility’s permit calls for 50 mg/l TSS and 30 mg/l BOD. Chlorination is not required; a buffer strip and chain link fencing restrict public access to the spray fields.

The other treatment facilities that Lovett runs on contract are simple lagoon systems. He handles the testing, sending samples to a private laboratory. City public works employees provide maintenance support.

Giving back

The diverse responsibilities don’t bother Lovett — in fact, he thrives on them. “I go to work every morning at four o’clock, and I work until it’s done,” he says. “I just enjoy it. It’s been my life.” In his spare time, Lovett attends meetings of the National Rural Water Association — 16 of them so far, all around the country. He was a founding board member of the Georgia Rural Water Association and has served as treasurer, vice president, and president.

“Georgia Rural Water is one of the best organizations we have in the state,” Lovett says. “Their executive director, Jimmy Mathews, has done more for water and wastewater than anyone I know. They do video inspection and smoke testing of sewer lines, leak detection, troubleshooting, and other services for us. They also do all the training classes for water and wastewater operators.”

As a board member with the Meriwether County Water Authority, Lovett is helping to oversee design and construction of a new $17 million wastewater treatment plant to serve a booming area in the northern part of the county. A new Kia automotive plant in West Point is expected to employ, with all its satellite suppliers, about 6,000 people, and other major businesses are moving to a new industrial park. “I’m the only person on the board who has any experience in water and wastewater,” Lovett says.

Serving the public

Meanwhile, Lovett takes quiet pride in his daily work. He enjoys good relationships with the government leaders of the cities he serves and feels they listen to and respect his professional opinions.

“It’s a public service that goes unnoticed,” he says. “The firemen and policemen and others get all the credit. We don’t get too much credit out here pumping the water. I just enjoy working with the public. We’re public servants. We should never forget that.”

He expresses gratitude to people who have helped him over the years. Among them is Jerry Hood, vice president of Engineering Management Inc. in Lawrenceville, Ga. “He is a great friend who will go the extra mile to give you a helping hand,” Lovett says. “I am also indebted to Bobby Brown, the mayor of Woodbury who hired me 33 years ago. He did a great deal for this community and for me.He’s the one who gave me a chance in life.”

To Lovett, every day is interesting. “When you come in, you don’t know what you’re going to face,” he says. “I love the challenges. It keeps you young. In a small town, you do it all. I’ve always said that if you can run a small system, you can run any system, because you do everything — the janitorial work, cutting the grass, treatment, lab work. You do it all.”

Lovett often gives treatment plant tours to school groups and civic organizations.“When they flush the commode at home, they don’t realize where it goes and what happens to it,” he says. “When they come out and see it, they’re amazed at what we do.”

He sees a bright future in the treatment sector for young people looking for rewarding and permanent employment. In a time when companies are downsizing and sending jobs overseas, wastewater treatment offers security. “We might not get rich doing it, but we’ll always have a job,” he says. “The people who were making $30 or $40 an hour in the auto industry were a lot better off than I was during that period. But since that industry has shut down some plants, I consider myself blessed to be still on the job, supplying people with water.”

Lovett’s job helped him raise three daughters, the eldest a labor and delivery nurse, the middle one a teacher, and the youngest a surgical nurse. His wife of 44 years recently retired from her job as deputy clerk of Superior Court in Meriwether County, but retirement is not in his plans: “I’m 70 years old, and I want to work to about 90.”


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