More Than he Wished For

Gilbert Sanchez got a humble start to a rewarding 33-year career that has brought him growth opportunity, travel and recognition

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The job nobody wanted was a dream come true for Gilbert Sanchez. “I had just graduated from high school,” he recalls. “I was 19, married and needed a job. I thought to myself ‘I’d be happy shoveling poo.’”

He went to the employment office in his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho, but the only available job was at the wastewater treatment plant. “What does that involve?” he asked. “Shoveling poo,” they said.

The next morning he was in an aeration basin in a pair of boots shoveling stuff into a clamshell bucket: “I got my wish.” He also got a start toward a very successful career. That first job as a laborer was in 1977. Now, 33 years later, he is project manager for Veolia Water’s operation at the Caldwell (Idaho) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In between, he has served as a supervisor for the operations firm OMI, spent time assigned to Del Rio, Texas, performed a second stint at Twin Falls, then worked at Humacao, Puerto Rico. His company has also called on him to help in startups at other treatment plants around the country.

He has Grade IV wastewater and Grade IV collections certification in Idaho and is certified by the Associated Board of Certification (ABC), which grants reciprocity in 27 states.

The Caldwell facility has been recognized by the Water Environment Federation with the George Burke Safety Award in 2003. Sanchez was the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association’s William D. Hatfield Award winner in 2007 and received the group’s Distinguished Individual Service Award in 2001.

He is also past president of the Southwest Idaho Operators Association and has taken numerous correspondence courses from California State and Idaho State universities and many training courses offered by PNCWA and the Idaho Water Environment Association.

“Where else could you have a job like this?” Sanchez asks. “The travel, the education and cross-training, the people you meet, the responsibility to protect the environment. It’s been good to me.”

Diverse duties

Veolia Water is in its 19th year of contracts with the city of Caldwell (population 45,000) to operate its treatment plant, a biological nutrient removal facility with an 8.5 mgd design flow and a peak design flow of 18.5 mgd.

The headworks includes Lakeside screw pumps and Parkson screens. After primary and secondary treatment, wastewater is disinfected with an ITT – WEDECO UV system and discharged to the Boise River. Digestion produces Class B biosolids, stored in lagoons and spread as liquid on farmland.

A Wonderware (Invensys Operations Management) database system tracks plant information, and the plant runs on a Hach WIMS operational program. Sanchez and his team are also responsible for 165 miles of sewers and 15 pump stations. Their equipment includes a Vactor combination truck and an Aries inspection van. The entire system is cleaned every two years.

While Sanchez is proud of the treatment plant’s performance, he points out that system is the result of four upgrades over the past 20 years. The original plant dates to 1957 and consisted of a rock media trickling filter system. The most recent upgrade was the inclusion of an aeration basin in the activated sludge system to enable biological nutrient removal.

In previous upgrades, the UV units replaced a chlorination system, the biosolids digesters were modernized, and the headworks received new screw pumps, screens, and grit removal equipment. Another expansion is on the horizon as the city contemplates adding belt presses to dewater biosolids.

Throughout the improvements, Sanchez and Veolia Water worked closely with the city and its engineering d esign company. Sanchez presents monthly operational reports to the city. “This is a great contract,” he says. “We communicate openly, get together a lot to talk over ideas.

“I’ve worked for a number of communities in my career. At Caldwell, you don’t work for the city, you work with them.”

People skills

The success and recognition that have come to Sanchez are a testimony to his technical expertise, hands-on experience, and people skills. Joe Paulin, operations supervisor at Caldwell, has worked with Sanchez for several years.

“He really cares about his employees,” Paulin says. “We meet every morning and go over what we’ve accomplished the day before. Everyone knows what’s going on. He’s good at communicating.”

Paulin also credits Sanchez for being budget-conscious, and for promoting the wastewater profession. John Shawcroft, assistant project manager at Caldwell, admires Sanchez’s management style. “He’s got lots of experience,” he says, “and he knows how to delegate.”

Sanchez relishes his role. “Our daily meetings are a key,” he says. “We sit down together for 25 to 30 minutes every morning. As a staff, we ask ourselves ‘What are we going to do today better than we did yesterday?’ We’re a small crew. We go over the numbers very closely. We want to make sure we keep doing things smarter and smarter.”

And he’s not just an administrator. True to his heritage in this field, he likes taking on specific tasks himself. “I just love getting out and cutting the grass every now and then,” he says.

Safety is another major topic at staff meetings. “We talk about simple but important stuff,” Sanchez says. “Looking both ways when you’re driving a vehicle, keeping an eye out for poison ivy and wasps in the summer. We take a lot of pride in our work and being safe.” The plant has gone more than 1,400 days without a lost-time accident.

Family affair

At age 52, Sanchez considers wastewater treatment a family affair. His brother Anthony works for Veolia Water in the Virgin Islands, and his three children all know what to say when asked what their father does for a living.

“Wastewater,” they say. “It’s our bread and butter.”

During his time in Puerto Rico, his children learned Spanish. And he values the travel. “It’s given us a chance to get away, to see other places,” he says. His kids are out of the house now, and Sanchez and his wife Lyndee are blessed with five grandchildren. They get it, as well.

“When they come down and look at the clean water leaving the plant, they say, ‘Boy, grandpa, you’re doing a really good job here.’

Sanchez says wastewater is his life’s work. “I’m staying in it until I can help all my grandchildren get a college education,” he says. Shawcroft understands. “With Gilbert,” he says, “family is first.”



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