Many Hats

Phil Webster acts as manager, volunteer coordinator, public educator and more as he leads the Water Pollution Control Department in Sedalia, Mo.
Many Hats
A lagoon built to catch stormwater overflow is located next to Sedalia’s West treatment plant.

Phil Webster’s to-do list must be a mile long. Find more wood chips for the composting project. Work on a multi-year sewer overflow reduction plan. Order T-shirts for the Stream Team. Monitor effluent for metals. Prepare for the disinfection upgrade. Talk to high school students about clean water. Explain recent rate increases. Manage multiple contracts. Teach a class to wastewater operators.

“It’s a big challenge,” says Webster, Alliance Water Resources manager of the Sedalia (Mo.) Water Pollution Control Department. Webster is responsible for three wastewater treatment plants, 186 miles of sewers and 10 lift stations, a composting facility, and 17 employees who remain on the city’s payroll. He also manages the city’s stormwater and industrial pretreatment programs. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon.

But he has no complaints. “Water really motivates me,” he says. “I grew up on the shores of Lake Huron. When I was a kid I remember driving by Lake Superior on a family vacation and looking out over the blue waters of the lake. It gave me a sense of awe and wonderment. I’m not sure what the feeling meant, but the majority of my professional life has been involved in water-based operations.”

Starting out

After earning a degree in fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri at Columbia, Webster cut his teeth working at a fish hatchery in Osage Beach, Mo. After five years of working on a farm that raised more than 20 species of freshwater fish, he got married and signed on with Alliance Water. “I had to make a choice,” he recalls, “I couldn’t stay married to the fish farm.”

Alliance assigned him to the wastewater treatment plant the firm operated at O’Fallon, Mo., and he began as a laboratory technician, complementing two years of lab experience at St. Louis University, where he also took courses.

Three years later, Alliance promoted him to manager at Cameron, Mo., and in 2008, he came to Sedalia. Today, his duties include management of the city’s North, Central, and Southeast wastewater treatment facilities. All handle 1.0 to 1.5 mgd, and combined they serve a population of about 21,000. The North plant dates to the 1940s and uses old-style trickling filters to treat the majority of the community’s industrial load, which emanates from metals, photographic, and meat processing plants.

The Central plant was an exact replica of the North plant, but was upgraded to activated sludge treatment in 2000. The majority of the community’s restaurants feed this facility, as does the Missouri State Fair for two weeks every summer.

The Southeast plant was built in the early 1980s and features a pair of oxidation ditches and in-channel clarifiers. Biosolids from all three facilities are dewatered on belt presses, then brought to a central facility. For many years, the solids were land-applied, but recently Sedalia launched a static aerated pile composting operation.

The biosolids program is just one challenge that brought Alliance Water and Webster to the scene in 2008. Previously, the solids were not passing vector reduction requirements due to inadequate digestion. The material had to be disced into the soil, at extra expense.

It’s about attitude

“The city understood the issue and looked at what else they could do,” says Webster. “The new compost facility is looking really good and is producing a Class A material.”

Still, finding an adequate source of wood chips and marketing the material successfully remain works in progress. “We need about 200 cubic yards of wood chips a week,” Webster says. “We started operation in September 2010. The final product is screened to quarter-inch granular material. It’s a good way to go with our solids.”

In talking with Webster, you get the impression that it’s only a matter of time before the composting challenge will be solved; he seems to flourish when faced with a problem. “Attitude plays a big role in getting me motivated,” he says. “I’ve often told myself, usually in difficult situations, that I have the power to turn a problem into a solution. Although this can be difficult, it has always worked when I stop for a second and remind myself that being positive is the best mindset to have.”

That can-do attitude is no doubt helping Webster deal with a number of other issues he and his staff and the city face as they work to improve Sedalia’s wastewater treatment system.

The city has entered a consent decree to correct wet-weather problems, and Webster is in charge of developing a long-range comprehensive plan that will cost about $30 million over the next five years.

“During rainstorms, we can see upwards of 14 mgd at the Southeast plant,” he says. “It’s a serious I&I problem. We’re doing a lot of flow monitoring and modeling, using about 35 to 40 monitoring sites.”

Multiple sources

On the stormwater side, the city is concentrating on illicit discharges, construction sites, and its own municipal operations. “I go out personally and review all our municipal operations to make sure we’re practicing what we preach in stormwater control,” he says. The wet-weather plan also includes a number of retention basins.

There’s more on his plate. With several metal finishing operations on the Sedalia system, the city’s permit has limits for metals. Webster and the Sedalia staff are heavily involved in a translator study for metals in the receiving streams.

Disinfection is another issue. At present, disinfection is not required at Sedalia, but it will be soon. Webster is responsible for preparing a plan to add disinfection to the treatment facilities when that requirement takes hold in 2013. On an even larger scale, the city is considering the feasibility of consolidating treatment at one or two of its treatment plants.

Webster’s ability to involve the employees will help solve these issues. “Phil makes employees part of the answer,” says mayor Elaine Horn. “He empowers employees to do their jobs better. In turn, they really accept him.”

John Q. Public

All these improvements will require funding in a time when state and federal support is limited. Sedalia’s citizens will be asked to shoulder more of the burden. That’s one reason that Webster practices public education so avidly that he could be the poster child for the Water Environment Federation’s public education committee.

He organizes citizen groups, known as Stream Teams, that clean stream banks and monitor water quality throughout the community. “I want people to know that our efforts are bearing fruit,” he says.

He has prepared printed materials explaining wastewater treatment and water quality. A stormwater education program he wrote features cartoon caricatures he created. One creature is MI and another ZU, for the Miz-zou chant of University of Missouri fans during sports events. The third represents a water drop, and together they tell the water cycle story.

“I saw the little artful characters used at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, and I thought they were a wonderful communications tool,” says Webster. “When I came to Sedalia, I developed these little characters as a way to promote the stormwater volunteer effort.”

He started an Adopt a Storm Drain program, and he frequently talks to students at area schools. “We’re just planting seeds,” he says. He wants people to have fun with water topics, and he takes the same approach as he teaches a wastewater management course approved for operator certification credits in Missouri.

On the front line

The work Webster does is part of what makes a success of public-private partnerships like the one between Sedalia and Alliance Water. “First of all, the municipality has to have a real need that we can meet,” says Webster. “Then we can use our experience and expertise to meet their needs and develop a good working relationship.

“Our economy of size helps save money on chemicals and certain equipment purchases. And the company’s wealth of experience can help a municipality work smarter and more cost-effectively. We also try to become part of the community by joining service clubs, giving classes in the schools, and volunteering in the community.”

Mayor Horn notes that Webster has been an essential promoter of the city’s $30 million sewer overflow project. “He’s right there,” Horn says. “He goes into the schools, he gives presentations to service clubs. He explains how we got where we are and where we need to get to. He’s gotten families to adopt storm drains and outfalls and to take part in things in their neighborhoods. None of this would have happened without Phil.

“He brings an incredible wealth of knowledge and education to our community. He has an impressive dedication to the job, and he works nonstop. He’s been able to assess what we’re doing well and what we can do better, where we can consolidate. With his leadership at the department, we’ve been able to move forward.”

Webster observes, “I approach each day as a gift, a new beginning so to speak; with the knowledge that no matter what happens to me, the sun will rise again tomorrow. This work has great variety and plenty of challenges. It offers me the opportunity to be a real environmentalist. I’m serving on the front line of environmental protection.”


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